Technology Camps, iPod, and the End to End Experience

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.

Comments (32)

  1. Joseph Kim says:

    Very well written.

    I was disturbed by many people overeacting to that WIRED article, like a little child who found a candy under an old sofa.

    I have an iPod, but I converted all my music formats from AAC to MP3, having realized how ‘closed’ the format was.

    I will buy iRiver soon because I want my musics to be universally compatible.

  2. Dave says:

    Well, you got it half right.

    The Wired article WAS silly. Your descriptions of the culture and business model differences between Apple and MS are dead on.

    But that’s about it.

    (1) iTunes is not open. I agree, but to call anything else – including the MS _licensable_ alternatives open is simply painting an inaccurate picture. There are more similarites here than differences.

    (2) You show ignorance of Apple when you say "there are no other choices but the iPod on the Mac". One has virtually nothing to do with the other.

    (2a) You can sync up your iPod with various programs, including iTunes. iTunes is available for for Windows and OS X boxes. iTunes can handle the MOST USED digital format – MP3.

    (2b) You generally don’t play your digital music "on a Mac" with your iPod as the source. Um, iTunes does it quite well. So does quite a few other apps.

    (2c) There are several sources where you can buy the MOST USED digital music format – MP3. iTunes can import them very easliy. So, are you locked into buying from the iTune Music Store? Nope.

    (2d) So now we’re down to this: iTunes is free. Kinda kills your claim of iTunes not being open in a few ways, doesn’t it.

    Look, the Wired article was one of the stupidest articles they wrote in a long time. (Then again, it did get everyone’s attention!) Microsoft makes solid products.

    But for you to make a claim of being objective and then state these blatantly false items… is disingenuous.

  3. Omar Shahine says:

    Dave, thanks for the comments. They are appreciated. I have some rebuttal.

    1) I can write code on Windows that can cosume DRM files on a PC. You cannot do this on Apple’s platform. You cannot use their technology to protect your content etc. You can do this with Microsoft’s SDKs

    2) But there are no other real choices

    2a) True, but you also cannot play FairPlay DRM files in any other program except iTunes.

    2b) Not sure what this is in reference to

    2c) I don’t buy this. I am going to purchase my music from a reputable music store, one that has relationships with the record labels. Record labels will not allow third parties to sell their stuff unless it has DRM.

    2d) Well I disagree.

    I guess there is no such thing as objective when technology camps exist. I have spent a lot of time in both camps though, and I don’t feel tied to any one platform. I just explained my point of view in a way that I felt was objective.

  4. Neema Agha says:

    You guys talk about "choice" as if people really care. What matters more whether it works. Frankly, as much as you might have to use Windows to get by, no one really likes it because it really doesn’t work the way an OS should. Neither does a consumer electronics device that gets hooked into Windows.

    Until you realize that people are frustrated and "had enough" with perpetual endless maintenance of their Windows PC, you’ll fail to see why the iPod has caught on.

    The only people who keep arguing the DRM issue are geeks. The average person doesn’t care as long as their music plays consistently and reliably.

    You guys simply don’t get it.

  5. BJ says:

    Omar, nice observations. However, I think your argument for choice in this instance overlooks something. Consumers do like choice… there are lots of choices out there for audio players and music stores. Apple certainly wasn’t the first to sell a hard-drive based music player… they just did it best, and consumers responded. Apple wasn’t the first to offer a legal music download service… they just did it best, and consumers responded.

    I think the problem here is that you and others just don’t like the choices consumers are making. Despite the universe of other players and music services, consumers are overwhelmingly choosing iPod and the iTunes music store (90% of hard-drive player market; 70% of music download market respectively). The key word here is "choosing." No one is forcing this stuff on them… they’re choosing it.

  6. Which do you think is harder:

    Apple licensing Fairplay and attempting to meet your needs with the iPod/iTunes system


    MS and its OEM’s matching the Apple experience in music players

    I ask because I see Apple moving very fast in extending their system and I think they’re model offers them a greater innovative capacity in the consumer space. Maybe in the next round Apple will again meet your needs as well or better than the MS platform. What would it take for Apple to get you back to the iPod/iTunes platform?

    PS I guess having all your current music in WMA lossless is another barrier that maybe we could ignore, converting being a pain and all.


  7. Omar Shahine says:

    Well myseflf, my wife, my sister and mother use an iPod… so I don’t know if that holds true. I also own a Rio Carbon though.

  8. Peter says:

    <I>"True, but you also cannot play FairPlay DRM files in any other program except iTunes."</I>

    I’m not sure about this–I’d have to go home and check.

    I <I>think</I>–and I may be wrong–that applications can <I>play</I>FairPlay DRM songs if they are using the appropriate "play-from-disk" QuickTime APIs. However, they cannot actually open/edit the audio data. I don’t know how the Windows APIs work, so I don’t know if this is true or not with Windows.

    I’d also point out that QuickTime is available for both Mac and Windows.

    I also disagree with the argument that consumers prefer "choice." There’s actually a delicate balancing act between convenience and price. Only the truly enlightened prefer "choice"–and they’re using Linux, which offers more "choice" than anyone!

    (Yes, I know, "choice" can equal price. I just couldn’t resist the Linux jab)

    For example, consider grocery shopping. Most people I know shop at the supermarket closest to them. Why? Because it’s convenient. They don’t run around to 15 different markets to get the absolute best prices and each different item on their lists. They might do some "bulk" comparisons (eg, "My bag of groceries cost $30 here and $25 there") and, depending on how inconvenient it is to save $5, that might make a difference.

    Gasoline is another example. Yeah, I’ll check the gas stations on the way to work and buy at the one that is the least expensive. But I’m not going to go three blocks out of my way to check out a gas station on the off-chance that I might save $2.20 on a fill-up.

    Heck, consider songs purchased at the iTunes Music Store. I can remove the DRM from the song by burning it to a CD and then re-importing it via Apple’s lossless codec. I’m also pretty sure I could re-encode it as AAC 128Kbps (the audio format from iTMS) with no loss. But this isn’t "convenient", so I don’t bother.

    Why do people buy iPods? Because it’s a convenient way to listen to music. I doubt there’s anybody out there who bought an iPod so they could go to iTMS and buy tracks one-at-a-time or complete sets for $9.99 from the privacy of their own home. There may be people who bought music from iTMS and don’t want to go through the conversion hassle described above to get it to work on their AAC-compatible player, so they bought an iPod. But I don’t think there are as many of those people.

    However, I do think you’re right and Microsoft has the right approach here. If I want to buy a song from an on-line store (maybe I got one of those free songs from Pepsi or Heineken or McDonalds), I should be able to play it on my portable music player–no matter the store or the player.

    Personally, I would probably still choose an iPod and iTunes Music Store–being the loony Mac guy that I am.

  9. PXLated says:

    As BJ pointed out, people like choice, they had a choice between competing systems (Apple wasn’t the first in the marketplace) and chose the iPod/iTunes "platform" because (as you pointed out) it’s end-to-end. The alternatives are just a collection of disparate parts and the divide grows every day as more and more accessories come out for iPod. The iPod gives the most choices in a "system". That will be harder and harder to compete with. Maybe impossible.

  10. ccrider says:

    Let’s see: iTunes works on Mac and Windows. MS DRM with Media Player only works on Windows.

    And who has the closed system?

  11. Omar Shahine says:

    It really depends on what your definition of closed is. MS DRM can work on any platform.

  12. Cliff says:

    As far as I can tell, there are a number of key things missing on the Microsoft music platform and it’s a direct result of the fact that multiple companies (rather than one like Apple) provides the solution to the customer:

    (1) Easy music sharing of music libraries between computers (or on the mac, even sharing between different user accounts on the same computer). This is dead simple in iTunes. Windows Media Player, Musicmatch, Napster, you name it — all of them lack the brain-dead simple music sharing in iTunes. Why? Because Microsoft would have to design a uniform API for that, to enable interoperation among these different jukebox applications and that is not easy to do. Certainly, not as easy as Apple doing it in one application. Sure, you can load music into your Media PC, but what if you want to play it in your office where you have a PC. Should you have to buy a $400 Media Center extender to do that? What if you want to take your notebook onto the front porch and listen to music. Should you drag your media center extender out there?

    (2) No cheap Airport Express type device, that you can select as the output device right from within the jukebox player. The only thing remotely comparable is a Media Center PC and the Extenders. But that is a lot more expensive than using your existing PC and buying a $129 device. Plus, can you select a Media Center Extender as the output device from within Napster, Musicmatch, etc? NO.

    (3) No iPod shuffle type device. The iPod shuffle is almost completely unique in that it needs no screen (which is unnecessary for many uses, e.g., exercising)). How can apple get away with no scree? Because Apple relies on iTunes to control many aspects of the device (e.g., autofill and the settings for that). What are the odds any time soon that the Napster, Musicmatch and Windows Media Player jukebox apps will have some interface that can control small, flash-based WMA players. Nil. Reason – see number 1 above. MS would have to design some standard API for that. That’s way harder than Apple simply implementing it in iTunes.

    (4) Advanced automobile interfacing – the funny thing is that you talk about this grand platform that Microsoft is creating, but the auto options for the iPod are far, far superior and getting better. Several auto manufacturers and car audio manufacturers are building iPod compatibility into their products, so you don’t have to use (as with the WMA players) a lame FM transmitter with poor audio quality or a cassette type adapter (the latter of which is not very useful anymore because most car stereos don’t play cassettes anymore). The new iPod interfaces for the auto often include control of the device, charging and display. What are the odds that anytime soon you can buy an iRiver and control it from your BMW steering wheel? Very low. Why? With so much "choice" — i.e, dozens of different WMA players all with different hardware and software interfaces – it’s too hard. The iPod is a standard that can be designed to. There’s no standard WMA player. They’re all different and changing quite a bit.

    (5) Same as No. 4 but for other accessories. The iPod has many, many more accessories. Partly this is a function of its popularity, but also it’s because there’s only a few iPod configurations and therefore a standard to design to. That’s not the case on the WMA side of the fence.

    So, choice comes at a very high cost indeed – missing functionality (provided by Apple and third parties). These miising functions don’t exist for the WMA platform because they are simply much harder to implement in that kind of "platform" .

    And I haven’t even gotten to another big cost of "choice" – greater degree of problems. It’s just a fact of life. Apple designs the whole package. It can eliminate the glitches much more easily and to a much greater degree. There have been several reports in published reviews of WMA players of glitches in download DRM content (I remember one Wall Street Journal article about this). The Wired article also spoke about this – the source reported that he and several MS executives had dutifully bought WMA players, couldn’t get them to work and returned them for iPods. This is going on. It may not happen to everyone, and if you’re technically inclined you probably can work past it, but for the average consumer, why buy into a platform with a higher chance of a problem? Why? Because the portable player costs $50 less? Is pulling your hair out when you have a problem you can’t solve worth $50?

    Final note – as far as I can tell, the only reason to go with the WMA option is (1) you already have a lot of WMA content or (2) you have a Media Center or want (and are willing to fork over the $1000 plus) for that "from the couch" functionality. My guess is that Apple will offer that "from the couch" functionality for a lower price at some point soon, but it’s true that it doesn’t now.

  13. ccrider says:

    What platforms? I can’t purchase a song from MS’s music site and play it on Media Player on my Mac!It discludes all of us Mac users. It won’t work on a Mac!

  14. ccrider says:

    Cliff: you summed it up so very well. Thanks for taking the time.

  15. Cliff says:

    I forgot a couple of things.

    First, the "choice" platform is also the "no accountability" platform. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s true. If something is wrong with Apple’s music solutions, you go to apple. You can buy applecare and get phone tech support for three years covering any aspect of apple’s solution. You can even get free support if you go to an apple retail store, after the applecare or normal warranty expires.

    On the WMA platform, Napster can tell you to call iRiver, and then you call iRiver and they tell you to call Napster. This happens whenever there’s an intractable problem – it’s some other provider’s fault.

    Needless to say, this is not very satisfying for the consumer.

    I think what we have here is a company (Microsoft) with a certain business model. It’s applying that model to a new market. If that model worked in that market, it would be a great business for Microsoft. I’m not sure it will work.

    Honestly, the only way I can see it working is if there’s no more innovation or advances possible. Certainly apple’s model has the upper hand now because it can innovate and add features that are just much, much harder to implement on a platform of the kind MS likes to build.

    Of course, what’s to stop apple from licensing Fairplay and all it’s other music technologies at that point?

  16. Cliff says:

    One more –

    I think Apple will provide the "from the couch" functionality — for music — using a remote with a small screen that interfaces with Airport express using bluetooth. The display would be very similar to the iPod display – except it will show the shared music libraries in your home network as opposed to what’s on a local drive. Note that Airport express has a USB port, which could be used for a bluetooth add-on (worst case apple has to design another variant of Airport Express).

    I’m betting apple could offer an Airport Express/Remote package for $199 or maybe $249. A lot cheaper than a Media Center PC and you wouldn’t have to have a TV nearby for the interface.

  17. Anona says:

    "People like choice."

    Which is precisely why Apple, the non-Microsoft variation, has become a brand of coalescence against what would be a non-choice under the single-DRM Microsoft ‘choice’.

    MSFT talks up ‘choice’ vs iPod/iTunes. What it really offers is choice as long as it’s MSFT DRM. In other words, you can have half dozen lousy players or half dozen insipid music stores as long as they all run on the MSFT platform/DRM/player/etc. That’s some choice!

  18. Neema Agha says:

    I see that you only approve what you want to hear. OK, I see how it works.

    This is yet another reason why you don’t get it.

    Fool yourself as much as you want, people don’t really want choice – they want it to work easily and more important, the first time.

    censor away… it is your page but the market, you can’t censor that.



  19. James Bailey says:

    Omar, you wrote:

    "It really depends on what your definition of closed is. MS DRM can work on any platform."

    Microsoft’s WMA DRM does not work on any Mac. My definition of closed is that it is not cross platform. In my opinion, iTunes is also somewhat closed because it doesn’t work on Linux (the only other major platform in the computing world today). But iTunes is less closed than WMA because at least it is on 2 platforms.

    Now, the argument is going to be (I’m guessing) that Apple can license WMA DRM and implement it for OS X if it wants. To which I counter, did Microsoft write iTunes for Windows? No. To be cross-platform and more open, Microsoft needs to show some commitment to that ideal. Right now, it is just business as usual as far as I can tell. And unfortunately for Microsoft, much of the world has already gone down that path and didn’t like what they found at the end of it.

  20. Omar Shahine says:


    I’m not sure what the heck you are talking about. I don’t sit around all day approving items for my blog. I get to them when I get to them.

    It’s interesting that you think I am fooling myself. I don’t.


  21. Phillip says:

    I think when M$ uses the term "choice" they are referring to "choice" of hardware, and "choice" of software, and "choice" of music vendors.

    When dealing with the iPod and iTMS you don’t have those choices. Because there is no other player. There is no other music store. In someways my heart goes out to all those people that spend thousands of dollars at iTMS. In my opinion they are locked in for life. Maybe in the long run its okay or maybe in the long run it will turn into a prison. Time will tell.

    Personally I prefer MP3 because it is universal. I can play them on my iPod. Or my computer. Or my Pocket PC. Or my Smartphone. Or my linux computer. Or my Mac.

    To me that is choice. And that is what I call "open".

    In my opinion its the DRM that robs you of your choice.

  22. An apple fan says:

    David Pogue has some interesting comments in Today’s "Circuits" column:

    "If all the best and the brightest programmers work at

    Microsoft, you’d think they could answer questions like

    these: If I click Remove, why must I be asked twice more if I

    want to remove something? Why can’t Windows keep track of

    which programs need which pieces, so Microsoft’s long-

    suffering customers don’t have to judge whether some shared

    DLL file is still necessary? When we install a new program,

    why aren’t we asked if we’d like it to replace the older

    version, rather than making us mop up afterward?

    Of course, you already know the answer. Microsoft doesn’t

    improve this kind of thing because it doesn’t have to. It’s

    got a bad case of a little thing called Monopoly Complacence."

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