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Zune 2.0: How Microsoft could beat the iPod

Besides being snarky and asking why Microsoft bothered in the first place, I've been thinking about the more significant aspects of the Zune, such as what it means (and could mean) to the market and the culture of the industry. There is a lot to be said about the fact that Microsoft is paying a record label tax on every device sold and the terrifying precedent that sets, as well as the IP-trampling and DRM-wrapping Wi-Fi sharing feature. Through all this I realized that Microsoft *could* have a great product on their hands - if they got to working on some true innovation (instead of - at best - an unpolished gimmick), and cleaned out the criticism todo list. It wouldn't be easy, especially in light of the uphill battle that seems to be getting steeper by the week, but it could theoretically be done, and we all would be better off if it happened (remember: competition is good for you and me). After the break, I've listed a a few fundamental elements and features that could propel the Zune not simply into the position of a justifiable contender to the DAP throne, but that of a truly innovative and culturally significant product like the iPod has become.
  • Share music, sans the bombing: Instead of *only* wrapping shared tunes in time-bombed 3 day/3 play DRM, allow songs rightfully purchased from the store to truly be shared - and kept - between, say, two or three users. All others get the time-bombed DRM version. This idea is borne from the fact that the iTS really has the most agreeable DRM to date. Setting aside the overall DRM argument: you're allowed to burn 7 copies of an iTS album or playlist before you have to change something about it, and you can have your library on any 5 machines at a given time. While we all know having a backup or two is *always* a good idea, it's also pretty obvious that virtually no one needs 7 copies; this is an undocumented compromise for true sharing amongst family and friends - no time bombs necessary. If Microsoft could take this 'agreeable sharing' concept and give it wings through Wi-Fi on the Zune, it would be a significant win for both the consumer and the industry, and a powerful evolution in the social aspect of this new realm of digital content and dizzying IP legislation.
  • Respect everyone's intellectual property: Again, setting aside the DRM debate, it seems that it might be here to stay, at least for now. That being the case, Microsoft needs to figure out a way to manage their DRM and sharing tunes without trampling the IP rights of other content. Songs with a Creative Commons license and podcasts with nary a license in sight, for example, still get wrapped in time-bombed DRM when 'squirted' between Zunes. This not only is a problem for, say, indie artists who are just happy that someone is sharing their music, but it shows a complete disregard on Microsoft's part for the IP of the rest of the industry - another fundamental criticism of the company. I am admittedly no software engineer, but to really give life to the Wi-Fi sharing feature, they need to find a way to respect everyone's IP - all the way from the major labels to the indie podcasters and bands across the world. Whether this is through some sort of CC metadata tag or some centralized database of content (*cough* podcasting support in the store *cough* *cough*), Microsoft needs to step outside the Redmond campus and join the party.
  • Fess up and open your store's doors: I get the fact that the point of the Zune is to take on not only the iPod, but the iTunes + iPod combination; this is why, at least in part, Microsoft decided to allow the Zune - and only the Zune - into their new store. The problem with this decision, and one of the most significant and obvious criticisms of it, is that Microsoft screwed over all their third party partners like Napster, Yahoo! Music and Rhapsody who have a serious investment in Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM system which - for right now - is DamnedForSure. Like many others, I can't stress and echo loudly enough how dreadfully horrific of a decision this was. Microsoft owes it to the industry and every involved customer (those who bought music and devices from these other parties) to open this new store's doors to PlaysForSure and all the other Microsoft DRM-compatible devices on the market. If the Zune is (or becomes) a good device, customers will take notice and buy them. In Microsoft's particular circumstances, locking out this entire ecosystem that they themselves created is a near-unforgivable offense.
  • Stop treating store customers like idiots: Speaking of stores, I didn't realize the Xbox Live marketplace used the same ridiculous 'points system' that the much-criticized Zune Marketplace store does. This, too, is a massive mistake on their part, bordering on insulting, as it horrendously and needlessly confuses an otherwise basic, so-fundamental-you-don't-think-about-it process. Sure - many claim they're trying to save money by cutting down on credit card authorization charges, but c'mon - this is Microsoft, not the small business in your garage. Further to the point: customers know what a dollar (or whatever one's local currency may be) is, and forcing them to learn some silly new exchange system is another major derailing of what should be an otherwise pleasant and simple experience. Stop it - bring back plain and simple cash. Remember what 'cash' is, Microsoft?
  • Hire a marketing team that doesn't suck: for the love of all things rational: stop calling it 'squirting.' Microsoft is well known for having some good ideas... and then horribly blowing their implementation or, sometimes even worse, developing ridiculous, silly or con-flustering marketing for said ideas. 'Squirting' is about the dumbest name for a product or feature I've heard from that camp this side of Microsoft Bob.
  • Go big or go home: The Zune 2.0 and, more importantly, its software need to just work. Our friends at Engadget, who are wearing a little thin on the iPod, mind you, had barely a good word to say about their Zune software installation experience. Roadblocks, crashes, hangs, too many login dialogs and memberships to enter or create, marred what should have been a heavenly experience - and they are by no stretch of the imagination alone in these bubble-bursting complaints. Case in point: If Microsoft wants to go after the iTunes and iPod, they need to go after the iTunes and iPod. Apple's products are by no means devoid of the occasional problems and software quirks, but it would be hard to argue that their failure rate is anywhere near on par with Microsoft's. The Zune and its software need to just work - from start to finish, top to bottom, through and through. Period. Reviewers of the Zune 2.0 need to sing from atop mountains how ecstatic they are with the dramatically improved experience. They need to cry tears of joy and pen praise worthy of the Emmy-sweeping movie of the year century. Anything less means they failed, utterly and completely, again - and we've all seen how rarely products like this get a third chance at bat.
A tough challenge? Sure - but a possibility for Microsoft? Sure thing. The world's largest technology company has been getting buried under criticism across many of its products for over-management and embarrassing under-performance. While the Zune in its current implementation might fit that bill, change could easily be on the menu at Redmond (or it had darn well better be). They have the chance to turn their player into a polished example of inspired innovation that benefits everyone - the industry, the market and consumers. Now that would be something to write about.

Besides being snarky and asking why Microsoft bothered in the first place, I've been thinking about the more significant aspects of the...