Saturday, July 22, 2006

Musical Follies

Over at Engadget, they've posted a list of known, speculated, and disproved features of Microsoft's new Zune media player, meant to take on Apple's iPod head on this Christmas season.

Of particular interest were these two bullet points under "What we know for sure":
• The Zune brand is intended to be an entirely vertically integrated end-to-end solution, not unlike the iPod / iTunes / iTunes Music Store triumvirate.

The service and device will not be PlaysForSure compliant, meaning you will not be able to use your Zune player with Napster or Vongo, for example. This will be an entirely new system. Microsoft will continue to support and develop for their PlaysForSure initiative, but all things PlaysForSure are handled by two entirely separate division that will not have any crossover. [Emphasis mine.]

Isn't one of the greatest complaints about Apple and the iTunes Music Store it's exclusivity? Leaving aside the ability to burn a CD that plays in any standard CD player (and so many people do), the iPod won't play Windows Media files at all, much less those with DRM from Napster and Vongo, and Apple won't license its Fairplay DRM to anyone else, so those iTMS files work only in iTunes or on an iPod. Exactly what is Microsoft promising that's going to fix that problem? The music you buy from the Zune store will only work on the Zune player, not on any PlaysForSure device, just like iTMS and the iPod. It won't play files from any other download service, just like the iPod.

But it will have WiFi, which stikes me as being interesting, but much like Malibu Stacy's new hat. Otherwise, Microsoft has taken the iPod and iTMS, copied it completely, and changed only the DRM scheme by adding yet another hurdle that users have to jump through. Oh, and while the rumors swirl that MS will offer to buy exact copies of all of your iTMS songs from the Zune store, no such rumors seem to abound for purchases from Napster, Yahoo!, or anybody else.

But no matter what, it won't work with a Mac.

Allow me, as an unabashed and diehard Mac user, to complain that Microsoft is missing something important about Mac users. The joke has long been that Redmond needed Apple to stay in business for two reasons: 1) To prove to the government that there was another commercially available operating system out there, and 2) For research and development. Tracing the history of the iPod, it's important to remember that it was initally an Mac-only device. It did well, Windows users clambored to get them to work with their PCs, and Apple relented and made it possible. The iTunes Music Store was initially Mac-only, started strongly, and Apple quickly released iTunes for Windows and made all of those Fairplay protected AAC files available to everyone.

Much has been written about the "Halo Effect," and Apple's hope that as people buy, use, and fall in love with their iPods, that that love will extend to other Apple products, especially Macintosh computers. There is debate over whether that is a failed strategy, given the Mac's relatively small uptick in market share, or whether it is a long-term game plan that is starting to show real results. Either way, Apple understands that it isn't the only OS in town and makes the iPod and the iTunes software OS agnostic, more or less. (I know, it ignores Linux and older OSes, but bear with me.)

Cupertino would love it if everyone who owned an iPod switched to a Mac, but they know it isn't likely, so they don't require it. MS in Redmond, however, seems to believe that I should be sufficiently motivated to move to their music player that I should ditch my Mac and buy a PC. (Full disclosure: I do own an Intel iMac, and could run Boot Camp or Parallels, but I also own a Power PC PowerBook that won't run either, so for the sake of argument, bear with me.)

What Microsoft is missing is something that John Gruber wrote in a recent post at his blog, Daring Fireball:
Many — not most, just many — Mac users occupy a slot in the computer user spectrum that is often overlooked: that of the non-technical enthusiast. These are people who don’t really understand how a computer works from a computer science perspective, but who do understand quite a bit about how a Macintosh works, from the perspective of the Mac OS UI metaphors. I.e. they’re Mac nerds but not computer nerds.

Back in 2002, responding to a Joel Spolsky piece regarding whether or not the Mac is a big enough market for commercial software developers, I wrote about this:

Sure, some Macs are used in corporate settings, and some are used at home by the “I just use the web and email” crowd. But Macs are much more likely to be used by computer enthusiasts. You pretty much have to go out of your way to end up with a Mac on your desk (or lap). If you walk into CompUSA and say, “I’d like to buy a computer”, you’re probably going to walk out with a Wintel box. If you do that at Wal-mart, you definitely will.

Let’s divide computer users into two groups — people who think computers are fun, and people who just happen to use a computer. Which group do you think buys more software (even including all the Linux nerds in the first group)? Which group do you think most Mac users are in?

Mac users may only constitute four percent of the total number of computer users; but they constitute a significantly higher percentage of the total number of users who do things like install and purchase third-party application software.

If Microsoft could convince Mac users -- "Apple Lovers," for God's sake -- that they were making a product superior to the iPod and providing a service more comprehensive than the iTunes Music Store, then the battle would be half won right there. But they won't, and the product and service that they are planning to offer are in no way discernable from what Apple is already offering, so why would anyone be all that interested in engaging in a long, complicated, pitfall laden process of moving all of my stuff from one device that I know works to another that, well, comes from the makers of the BSoD.

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