There's lots of talk about Microsoft's slimmed-down, second-generation Zune. I'm supposed to get my review unit soon, and I'm anxious to take a look. I'm sure it's much improved over the 1.0 design, which had all the style of a 1960 Dodge Polara. However, if you ask people which music player they want for the holidays, and you frame the question the way I did in the headline, the answer is pretty obvious.That's not a slam against Microsoft. (Our own David DeJean has just reviewed the new Zune, and mostly likes it.) Clearly, Microsoft is trying to get with the program. Unfortunately, it's got almost insurmountable heights to scale. (See? It's even hard to cleanly frame a discussion about competing against the iPod. I've just begun and I'm already mixing metaphors.)
My point, and it's an unoriginal one to be sure, is that Steve Jobs has created far more than a music player. He's created an entire ecosystem that's apparently self-refreshing. That is, it keeps gaining ground no matter what other vendors throw at it.
The prime example here is iTunes, which I've consistently pointed out is inferior to subscription services. Apple's service requires you to pay for each song. The latter, in the form of the new Napster and Rhapsody, let you listen to all you can eat (those mixed metaphors again) for a flat free running around $15 a month.
Yet still iTunes flourishes while the subscription services aren't setting the world on fire. Indeed, Microsoft put its URGE subscription service, which was a joint venture with MTV, out of its misery earlier this year. That was when Microsoft pulled the plug on its PlayForSure partners to shift its focus to Zune, which is tied to Rhapsody. (In my opinion the least agreeable of the subscription offerings; I loved URGE. See "MTV Deal With Rhapsody Crushes URGE Users.")
Of course, the dirty little secret of the music-player world is that most kids are listening to stolen music, so iTunes and the other services are at most icing on the cake.
Interestingly, the coolest, sleekest looking players out there are from Samsung, in the form of models like the YP-K3.
Unfortunately, according to the authoritative report from iSuppli, Samsung only has a 2.4 percent slice of the music-player marker. It, and everyone else, is dwarfed by Apple's 23.7 percent share. Perhaps that's way Samsung seems to be pulling back on its consumer MP3-player efforts in favor of fielding music-capable cell phones like its new Juke.
Apple's iPod is way ahead, according to authoritative market-researchers iSuppli. (Click picture to enlarge.)
In marketing terms, the most appealing aspect of any music player unfortunately isn't its sounds but its hip factor. Still, I have to admit I'm tempted by the $99 closeout-style pricing I saw at Radio Shack over the Thanksgiving weekend for Microsoft's first-generation 30-GB Zune.
I'll get back to you with my gen-two Zune review as soon as possible. For now, some food for thought comes via Daniel Dilger's blog RoughlyDraftedMagazine, which let loose with "Why Microsoft's Zune Is Still Failing" last week.
His most salient criticism (aside for the non-cutting-edge looks of the new Zune, which are obvious for all to see) is what Dilger wrote about the player's wireless-sharing feature: "Microsoft doesn't seem to understand the engineering art of leaving things out."
My suspicion is that Microsoft's products suffer from bloat because its corporate culture is such that it's just not done that someone says "no" to a suggestion, especially when it's from someone higher on the corporate hierarchy. So "let's add a toolbar," "let's add another toolbar," "hey, how about wireless sharing" are all met with the same response: "Cool; let's do it."
That's in contrast to Apple, where you have Steve Jobs's unerring market sensibility to arbitrate feature creep. (We'll know when Jobs has jumped the shark, when iPods start to suck.) So, just like no one says no to anyone at Microsoft, no one says no to Jobs. Same dynamic, opposite effect.
One other point. There are a bunch of stories floating around to the effect that the new, 80-GB Zune is so hot that stores can't keep it in stock. Quite frankly, it's way too soon to take this on faith as an indication that the player is a hit. More plausible is the explanation that the new Zune is still so early in its shipping cycle that most stores haven't received the quantities they're supposed to have on hand for the beginning of the holiday shopping season. If it's really a supply issue, as opposed to an over-demand situation, this is a bad thing, not a positive.
(P.S. The answer to the straw-person headline question is, iPod. It's only contrarians like me who go for offbeat options like the Samsung. As for the Zune, I'm still strongly considering the cheapy $99 30-GB model.)