The Zune Player’s new user interface

A psuedo overview of the first Zune device’s new interface has been posted on iLounge.  In general, the authors have gotten some of it right and some of it wrong. zune-back.jpg

User Interface:  They’re right that the screen is white on black, making the interface easy to read and not-so-blinding in the dark.  And they’re right that the UI is similar to that of iPod’s… after all, we actually have a patent on the iPod UI.  And when you are scrolling through many songs, just like the Windows Mobile "contacts" interface, you start to see the first letter of the songs superimposed on the screen going from A…. down to Z, allow you to jump from the B’s to the T’s relatively quickly.  There’s more to this than they’ve mentioned but I’ll leave that for the launch.  The mockup to the right is a pretty good representation of what the device’s beta UI looks like from what I’ve seen.

Screen:  The display is much larger than the iPod’s making videos viewable in landscape with a much higher resolution and a much clearer, more relevant view of photos and images like the covers of the album of a given song.  This may not seem like a big deal to you unless you’ve actually tried to watch a movie on an iPod or you get to see what photos & album covers look like on the screen of the Zune player making the difference evident.  When it comes to screen size on these devices, it’s become apparent that size matters.

Weight & FM Radio:  This is REALLY important and really downplayed by iLounge which to me shows how out of touch they are with the average consumer.  Seriously.  iLounge dings the player for being made out of "plastic", which is ludicrous.  Most of the iPod casing is plastic.  Every cell phone casing is plastic.  The Compaq iPaq, the Palm Treo, and the case of every PDAPhone or Smartphone on the market is made entirely of plastic – even though the outside is a faux metal and most people don’t know it.  Yet somehow having a lighter weight device that still feels well-constructed out of solid material and a quality frame is a "bad thing".  No – these folks completely missed the boat on this point. 

For a large segment of media player owners, having an FM Radio is ridiculously important.  Why?  Anyone that works out at a gym regularly knows why:  It’s because when you’re working out, nothing beats an FM tuner for music when you’re bored of your own blather.  It’s just something about having new, live, random media that’s important.  And remember that most gyms have privately broadcasted TV audio operating over FM frequencies.   I belong to two gyms and each broadcasts over 88.1FM, 89.3FM, and 91.1FM to allow you to listen to 3 different TV stations being shown on the overhead monitors while you’re busting your butt on the elliptical machines or stairmasters.

(NOTE:  If they’d install racing games into the exercise machines linked to said monitors based on how hard I worked out, allowing me to compete with others in the room, I swear I’d be back to my old college physique when I has 8% body fat and could benchpress twice my body weight.  Hell – if they made it possible to SHOOT other folks working out "virtually" in some sort of video game linked to the stairmaster, I swear I’d never leave the gym.  I can’t understand why someone hasn’t done this yet.  But I digress.)

Wi-Fi:  This is the one feature that they really "didn’t get" and the fact that they used the term "apparently" meant to me that they didn’t really know anything about the feature or even try it out.  Zune player allows up to 4 people with players to all listen to music that you’re broadcasting over a very battery efficient 802.11b transceiver, effectively making one person a "DJ" of the group.

This is really big folks.  Ask yourself how tightly knit networks learn about what’s hot and what’s trendy in the music world.  It’s through personal communities & friends.  By sharing.  The iPod isn’t just an ‘island’ when it comes to sharing… people with iPod’s NEVER share their content between devices, nor is there any easy way to communicate what you’ve got between devices outside of "telling people what’s in your playlist". 

Not on the Zune player. 

  • Wanna share music just by being in broadcast range with whomever?  Zune can make your broadcast public.
  • Wanna have a private session between just friends?  Zune can do that and make your playlist the center of attention.
  • Wanna NOT share anything but rather just "listen" for other people’s broadcasts?  Zune can do that too.

The great part about all of this is that it’s FUN.  Sharing content and being the DJ of your own playlist for people is really really cool.  It puts the focus on you and challenges you to get the best music… to showcase your insider knowledge of a music genera.

And it encourages legal music sales as well.  When you hear a tune, you get a link that allows you buy the song using the Zune Music Store – kind of a like a "history of songs heard".  No more guessing or having to remember "what was the name of that song that that friend played for you.

PRICE & MARKETSHARE:  But this is only cool if MANY people have Zune Media players.  Damn right.  And I don’t believe that marketshare is going to be a problem.  Remember that WiFi connectivity is a theme amongst Zune devices (Zune is just one of at least 3 different devices to be released) and people will finally have a consistently themed, consistent UI, and a consistent series of devices that will be released for the Media Player market.  People will be able to depend on Zune to be revised and around for the long haul.  People will know that a v2.0 version of their device will be released and that their music libraries won’t need to be completely retrofitted, nor will they need to learn yet another UI on either their device or their desktop.

Here’s a list of communities that I believe will immediately flock to the Zune:

  • Enter every XBox360 owner on the market.  I can assure you that those folks with XBox360’s are going to go out and get one.  Why?  Besides just having the thrill of an affordable media player practically designed for their entertainment console, more than 60% of the 7M XBox360 owners in the world have them wirelessly connected making them immediately ready for Zune – you can turn on both Zune & the Xbox360 and without plugging anything in, have your XBox360 sound system play your Zune’s music.  No USB, not connector, no nothing.  More importantly, the demographic of a Xbox360 owner is one in which the purchase price of Zune isn’t going to be a problem come this Christmas.
  • Enter kids.  This is a network effect device designed for completely invisible, wireless peer-to-peer sharing in school, at home, at work:  If I get a Zune, unlike the iPod, I as an owner have a direct incentive to get others to buy one because the more people that own one, the cooler my experience is.  If I get bored, why not listen to someone else’s playlist?  iPod owners really could give a damn whether or not anyone else owns either an iPod or a Creative Labs player.  It’s not like you share accessories or media files and in fact, Apple’s iTMS and the iTunes interface pretty much makes sharing an impossibility.  But not with Zune.  Sharing is an integrated and crucial part of the experience.
  • Enter every Windows operating system owner on the market.  At least those that have used iTunes on Windows and felt jilted.  Apple’s going to finally get their come-uppance for providing a crummy experience for iPod owners on Windows.  iTunes for Windows is metallic grey and in no way conforms with the current theme of your Windows desktop.  You could have the coolest theme on your machine and iTunes grey interface, like Quicktime, sticks out like a sore thumb.  It doesn’t do CDDB album information lookups over port 80 making usage behind firewalls impossible.  It doesn’t seemlessly plug-and-play and show up as a hard drive – even though, like every other media player on the market, it could.  It doesn’t allow you to minimize the application to the System Tray like most other media players.  There’s no dynamic tagging, allowing me to select any music file I’ve got and have iTunes immediately do a CDDB search on it to pull album information, author names, etc. and associate it with the file in the iTunes metabase… every other tool on the market does this including Windows Media Player & WinAMP.
  • Enter every IT Professional.   Very few IT administrators & help desk engineers that I know of like Apple for one reason.  Macintoshes are always the thorn in the IT administrator’s side – it requires different lockdown policies, different patching & management technologies, different applications & core tools like anti-virus & backup… it’s just generally a lot of work for only a smaller percentage of the actual systems in a company – usually 1 or 2%.  Imagine the number of end users whining to help desk about wanting to load iTunes for Windows on their PC’s.  The last thing IT pros ever really want is to support the company that’s creating more complexity for them by deviating from their clean, managable, standardized environment.  And anything that works well with Windows Media Player, the standard player for Windows, is a great thing.
  • Enter every jilted Windows Media user on the Internet.  Windows Media is the single heaviest-used managed format/codec in the world beating Apple’s AAC & Real Networks RealAudio.  It provides playback in a format that is half the size of MP3 with the same fidelity, or twice the fidelity at the same file size.  Apple’s lack of incorporation of .WMA playability is going to come back to haunt them from the sheer resentment of individuals that do use Windows Media.


MARKETING:  The final frontier
Last but not least, one of the big reasons Zune will take off is marketing.


That’s right – marketing.  Ever notice how Microsoft as a company, unless the product is something like Windows Vista or Office 2007, it does a cheap-o, lame-assed job of marketing it?  The ghetto-budget, lackluster marketing of Windows Mobile for example almost doomed it and had it not been for the fact that the technology and underlying foundation was so good, the product would have died from lousy marketing.

No sir – the Zune family will be marketed like the XBox:  Creatively, uniquely, autonomously, and without interference from the corporate mothership.  It has a massive budget to connect with specific demographics and seed devices to specific individuals in the limelight.  It will sponsor key events, key TV programs, key movies, and be in the public eye – much in the same way you have the ubiquity of iPod’s advertisements and product placement.  And it will get a lot of airplay from music companies and media outlets because the technology will be virulent AND these folks will want the opportunity to tap that massive promotional advertising budget that we have.

But unlike Apple, you will have the innovation of the Zune networked community, the focus of a Microsoft organization with a budget analogous to Apple’s, and the integration with the Windows experience.  And that’s going to be big because while Apple’s always been a hype engine, bashing Microsoft and Windows, they’ve been historically treated like an annoyance.  Apple’s never gone head to head with Microsoft’s real guns: 

  • Focused & unfettered creative talent on par with Apple’s in house folks.  Without naming names, we hired folks like the original creative hardware designers of the Macintosh, just as an example.
  • Seamless integration with Microsoft’s Windows operating system which has 89% marketshare.  Apple could have produced a better integrated software product for Windows but they chose to ignore our UI Guidelines for Windows and go with a Mac look-and-feel for iTunes.
  • A $50 Billion warchest unmatched in the industry.  That’s $50B in liquid capital to be used in whatever way Microsoft sees fit.  To put this into perspective, Apple as a company has a market cap of $57 billion.  To put this another way, in order to beat Sony in the game console market, less that $6 billion was earmarked over 7 years for the effort …much less appears necessary to compete with Apple’s iPod because of the existence of Microsoft’s backend "Live" datacenters which can of course be leveraged for music sales.

Have doubts?  Take a look at Xbox.  It went from having no marketshare to owning mindshare as the next-gen console of choice today beating out Sony Playstation.  While Sony hasn’t shipped a single next-gen console, Microsoft is already up to 7 million units.  Sony might gather steam this Christmas, but so will XBox360… and it’ll have more games, more accessories, and more users for a larger online community.

The sleeping giant has awoken, and its weapon of choice this holiday season is Zune.

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