In life there are always at least two camps. When I was a kid it was Nike vs Reebok. For some people it’s Audi vs BMW, for others it’s iPod vs everything else. I feel that I am in many camps, but when it comes to Apple vs Microsoft, MCE vs TiVo, iPod vs Everything else I feel that I have as an objective point of view as is possible. How? Well I have owned or own both, and love each for what they bring to the table. I worked on Mac software at Microsoft, loved the Mac OS and the products I work on, but I also love the products my company makes.
I’ve seen a lot of activity over the last few days both in the blogsphere and inside Microsoft in reaction to this Wired Article. First and foremost, this article was silly. There was no story here, and it was sensational at best. For heavens sake I carried a PowerBook around at Microsoft for 4 years and no one ever said jack to me. The notion that people at Microsoft are offended or care that I might use a competitors product is ludicrous. The notion that you can build a better product than your competition without using and loving that product is silly. You cannot build a better product than your competition unless you are intimately familiar with the competition. The only way to do that without fooling yourself is to use it, day in and day out. I wish everyone in the Media Group at Microsoft had an iPod.
What some people fail to understand is that there is a fundamental difference between Apple and Microsoft. Apple creates the hardware for their end users. They start with an end to end scenario. That is, they come up with a compelling idea, and they design the solution. From the Apple Store to the experience at home opening the item, taking it out of its packaging, and installing the software then using the device is a well orchestrated series of events. Apple has spent months if not years thinking about how to perfect this experience. No other company does this in the consumer space, and it’s not possible unless you own everything in the scenario. In this case Apple owns the store, the hardware, the music store, the software to connect to the device, the software to download from the store, and the relationship with all the record labels who provide the media. This is incredibly powerful when you are trying to solve specific scenarios, and when it comes to things people have always been incredibly passionate about (music) it matters.
Now contrast this to Microsoft. For the past few years the focus has been on building a world class platform. From the codec’s, to the encoding technology, to the protocol for moving bits from the computer to the device, to the encryption technology, policy enforcement of digital rights, and servers to manage those rights it’s all been spec’ed and delivered in a manner that any software developer can utilize. You can create your own Music Store and sell content to anyone with a compatible device. You can build a device that can play rich video and audio. You can build software that can manipulate that music, and organize it for users, or even a new shell that can present that media to the user who is sitting on their couch and interacts via a remote control. You can even buy a cell phone that can consume these media files! Talk about a rich eco system. But that’s what it is; a platform for anyone with a desire to build on. Microsoft participates in this eco system via the MSN Music Store, and other various properties, but we do not dictate how much you will pay, and what device you will use. We give you choice, and history has shown time and time again, that choice is always more powerful. Choice and flexibility always wins. Consumers want choice.
However, that choice comes at a huge price in this case. The cost of doing this is that until Microsoft starts to make audio devices, or an OEM can produce a product that delivers on a totally solid end to end experience, we’ll always be in an us vs them state of affairs. A music device these days is a form of personal expression. Like a phone, or a watch, it’s part of your identity and something which brings you joy. I think this is why people are so interested and opinionated in this debate. They feel like they are being attacked personally, and well, most folks don’t like that. However, I respect both the iPod and the platform Microsoft provides for their own qualities. I absolutely love the out of box experience you get with the iPod. Everything about it has been designed to work. If you buy a Creative Zen Micro you have to install firmware before you can even take advantage of the technology platform we have built to provide a seamless synchronization experience with Windows Media Player. Where is the value proposition there? When you purchase a Rio Carbon you need to use a sledge hammer to get the packaging opened before you can use your device! Not so with the iPod, as you are greeted by a friendly and happy white box that opens like a well engineered package should. It says “Designed in California” and has a beautiful stainless steel and acrylic build that you don’t want to tarnish. My Rio Carbon has a cheap coat of paint on it that is pealing of. How can you compare? How can you convince OEMs to care as much as Apple and spend as much time and money caring?
Well I don’t know the answers to all these questions but I do know this. I love the iPod; it’s fantastic. However, I don’t purchase any music from iTunes because I love my Windows Media Center and I want my music to work everywhere that my ears can listen. That means my from my living room couch where I can control my Media Center, from my portable device on the train where I spend 2 hours a day, from the speakers of my car when I spend time on the weekend, from my office computer and from my laptop. I want full fidelity at home, which means lossless audio, and I want as many songs as will fit on 5 GB w/o a significant loss in audio quality (128 K WMA VBR). I also want to manage all this music from a single music library, and I want to be able to move all my purchased audio around to all these device. This is my end to end scenario, and for me Windows provides the platform to do all this. The iPod is still a better end to end experience for a portable device, I will not deny that. However, the OEMs are getting better at delivering hardware. That takes lot of work and evangelism on our part. We don’t make the hardware, that’s not what Microsoft is about today (I’m not arguing that we should or shouldn’t). However, we are awesome at making a killer end to end technology platform and placing choice in the hands of the consumer. That choice comes at a cost of using our file format, but that file format is public, available, and licensable. FairPlay is not. iTunes is not open, and there are no other choices but the iPod on the Mac. Once upon a time there were third party music players, but Apple has taken away the incentive to stick around. As we continue to improve the platform and work with the OEMs the end to end portable device scenario will get better. If you need examples just look at where the Mobile Devices division has come from and where the Pocket PC and Smartphone are today. Look at the Portable Media Center; there is nothing in it’s class that is as good. It will get smaller and the OEMs will create more unique form factors to address user needs. And for something where we aren’t following, but leading, look at the Tablet PC. You may not need or want one, but it’s an incredible testament to what is possible with time and investment in our part. The rest of the story continues with investment in helping the OEMs build a variety of products, with great experiences that give people more choice in what they can buy. People like choice.