Sorry that this isn't a Windows Mobile related blog entry, but it's a snow day today - an inch of snow fell on Redmond, and so the city ground to a halt - and this has been bugging me.
Yesterday, I bought a Zune.
I've owned iPods since they were first released: I remember fondly my first 5Gb model with the mechanical scroll wheel, and FireWire only connection. It was amazing having that much music with me. I currently have a 20Gb iPod, which I've been putting off upgrading until I see the next wondrous device to come from Apple.
So, when Microsoft announced the Zune, I had some interesting little chats with myself.
"Hey dude, it's a Microsoft product and you work for Microsoft, don't you think you better get one?".
"No way, man, the iPod is cool. The Microsoft one is bound to be clunky."
"But look at the Xbox, that rocks! And it's the same hair-challenged dude that ran that project that is working on the Zune launch, so it will rock too."
"Yeah, but all my music is in iTunes format. And it's brown."
"But the Zune has a great screen. You won't have to carry around the PSP to watch The Daily Show on the plane, you can watch it on the Zune."
"Well yeah, i guess. But brown?"
"And it comes in brown! You like brown."
"True. I do like brown. And it actually looks nice - and if it didn't I could get white or black... But still, I don't know. I'll wait and see. I'd miss the podcasting features that iTunes provides."
And so on. I don't really called myself "dude" and "man", but looking at the Zune advertising I felt I had to, as all Zune users are apparently very attractive Americans in their very early 30's, who like extreme sports, have little beards and wear random grunge-y clothing, hang out with other attractive young people in their 30's and listen to unsigned bands. Which, by the way, is SO not me. Man. Dude.
So the launch came and wow: the internets exploded. The tubes were packed with vitriol for the Zune. Reading reviews and forums and comments on blogs, it was amazing how much people hated Zune. It was like Microsoft came around to your house and punched you in the stomach. Hard. People really disliked the Zune. And posted such weird things about it..
"Yeah, the screen is larger but it's the same number of pixels as the iPod. What a typical FUD Microsoft trick!"
"The UI sucks, man! All that album art!"
"You can share songs over WiFi but with limitations! That just blows!"
"The brown is the same colour as ****!"
(Incidentally, what's brown and sticky? Yes, that's right - a stick)
There were similarly bizarre comments from larger names in the tech review industry. The sharing was no good, because you could only play a shared song three times (missing the point that sharing is something that's impossible to do on, say, an iPod). The music used DRM (like the.. well, you get the idea). All the features were almost entirely described in a negative way.
So with all this unbelievable hatred, I felt compelled to go get one and try it out. And you know what? I like it. Yeah, it's a little boxier than my 20Gb iPod, but the casing is really nice. It feels nice in the hand, and doesn't smudge up. I don't think I could strap it to my arm when I go running, like the Nano, but it still slides into my pocket. I like the little magnets on the ear pieces.
The central control isn't a wheel which is a little unsettling, but it still works fine and I like the UI - going back to the iPod makes the iPod look monochrome and uninteresting. I also like the radio, and the larger (physically larger, that is) screen makes watching TV programs not too bad (as "not too bad" as TV on anything less than 14 inches can be).
In other words, I was very surprised at how much I liked the Zune. After reading the reviews, I thought I was going to drop it immediately, and wash my hands to get the stink off. Sure, the Zune software has a few rough edges that I'm trying to work around, but I think it's likely that there are going to be plenty of updates. It took years for the iPod and iTunes to get into the state they are in today - and there were plenty of rough edges there too (poor battery life, Shuffles locking up for good, bugs in iTunes - as with every project nothing is perfect, not even Apple products 🙂 ).
Still, this leaves me wondering about the amount of pure hatred for the Zune that is apparent online. It's quite surprising in its ferocity. It's not as if Microsoft is forcing people to give up their iPods and buy Zunes, the Zune is just another cool gadget that's available to buy. And I like cool gadgets. A lot.
What's going on? Well, unlike Pocket PCs or mice and keyboards, it seems that people have a very, very strong emotional attachment to their music playing device. Some people will have "emotional investments", and will be worried that the device they have been enjoying and boasting about to friends might not be the latest and greatest (even if the Zune isn't quite ready to take that crown, in the opinion of many).
There are plenty of other digital audio players on the market - SanDisk have some nice ones for example - but no-one complains about them. So it's something about Microsoft having the audacity to challenge Apple that is stoking the fires. I think it's great of course: competition always leads to better products. Look at IE7 for example.
Is it the fact that Microsoft, the company that makes "boring" stuff like Windows and Office, is entering this very person market that upsets people? But the Pocket PC is popular.. the XBox is huge.. Microsoft keyboards are the best out there.. What's different about music?
All I can think of is that it's the interaction between the companies, not the products, that is causing the friction. It's not iPod versus Zune, it's Apple versus Microsoft. It's the plucky underdog versus The Man. It's elitism versus everyone else. The Zune could - and this might happen some day - be the best music player in the entire known universe, and still it would get a similar reaction. At least, that's my theory.
Sure, maybe Zune could well be on its way to being an internet joke: people enjoy making fun of it, even if they haven't seen it, don't know anything about. It's a kind of feedback driven loop. Will Zune make it onto the Late Night TV shows as the butt of a joke? Who knows - I wouldn't be surprised.
Does this worry Microsoft and the Zune team? I've no idea. I'm not in the Zune team. I know if I was, I'd be saddened by all the negative press around a product which is actually very good. According to the Zune blog, sales are right on target.
As a Microsoft employee, I'm used to reading about "Micro$oft" and so on, and that doesn't bother me too much - because I know that most of these comments are just internet jokes, or based on "facts" that simply aren't true. I know Microsoft is a great company, that makes great products (and some really great products), gives a fortune to the community, and is a great place to work filled with smart people (and me). And who knows what upgrades are coming soon?
I would love to read a study on why the Zune is disliked so much, and I'd also welcome your opinions. I don't want to start an iPod/Zune war in the comments (not that I expect many comments), I am more interested in the perception of these products.
Note: As always, this blog entry is my opinion and not that of my employer.
p.s. Seen the new Apple advert on TV where PC gives Mac a C++ GUI programming book? That's funny stuff