Zune and fashion fatigue

Zune has the features it needs to distinguish itself from the ubiquitous iPod. Features alone, however, aren't enough to displace what has become the first computing fashion accessory.

I'll probably buy a Zune when its released. I've been looking for a device onto which I could put most of my music collection (I have a rather large CD collection, which according to a bunch of market research polls, means I am old), and though the iPod is nice, I've always wanted something that understood Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, because that's the format that works best with Media Player. I've also never been all that thrilled about iTunes, so I waited, and waited, and waited...and Zune seems like the thing that will make me open my wallet.

Zune has some interesting features that set it apart from the iPod, such as intergrated WiFi support and the ability to share files with other Zune users. Features alone, however, aren't enough to beat the iPod. There are a lot of media players currently on the market that do far more than the dominant iPod device. Those devices, however, don't have the carefully-crafted "cachet" of an iPod.

The iPod is probably the first computing fashion accessory, and that's no mean feat. It takes strong design skills combined with a careful and persistent marketing campaign, the latter of which should be apparent to anyone who can't escape the ubiquitous iPod dancing silhouette. You certainly can't escape it in Los Angeles. Particularly notable is the large ad next to the Chateau Marmont on Sunset, or the giant spread on the side of a building on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland that can be easily seen by people standing next to the Hollywood sign (which is very far away).

Design and marketing have made iPod something that people choose because it's an iPod. That's a powerful position to be in, and something most would kill to replicate. The only problem with fashion accessory status, however, is something I'll call "fashion fatigue."

A product starts on the road to fashionability by convincing the trendsetters to favor it. Once that happens, more and more start to gravitate towards the fashionable product until a point is reached where large numbers have the product.

At that point, an individual no longer shows their trendsetting individuality by owning the now common product. Those looking to distinguish themselves may start to look for something different.

That's where Zune has an opportunity. iPod has been dominant for some time. From a feature standpoint, the Zune appears to distinguish itself with some interesting social networking features. If Zune can position itself as the fashionable alternative to iPod through proper marketing, they might have a chance to attract the trendsetters, and thus start to tip the playing field more in Zune's direction.

Of course, Zune can't be promoted like a typical business-oriented Microsoft product. It needs to be marketed more like the XBOX, which is probably why J. Allard, the father of the XBOX, was tapped to help create the Zune. Consumer hardware is a very different market from the one in which Microsoft typically operates in (even though Windows underlies most consumer PCs), and needs to be marketed not like a technology product so much as an accessory - like a TV set, but with a "cool" factor the likes of which Microsoft has managed to capture in their XBOX line.

iPod does have differences relative to typical fashion products. There isn't an ecosystem of compatible products oriented around Hugo Boss shirts, as an example. However, Microsoft certainly has the cash to single-handedly create a decent-sized accessory range from day one, so the ecosystem issue is less pronounced with Zune than it would be with another company.

Nothing, of course, is guaranteed, and Apple certainly won't stand still in response to the Zune onslaught. Irrespective of whether you like the Zune, however, it's good to finally see a player try to compete with the dominant iPod in a market where more electronics companies appear to be shrinking away from the fight.

Competition is good.