So I read the NY Times Zune HD review last week and I hope every Microsoft employee is experiencing the embarrassment I feel for them. The feature set reeks of committee compromise. It’s obvious that so many different parts of Microsoft needed to have their say in the Zune design that none of them won, and the goal became to make the second best media player in the world by copying a couple features from the best one. Rather than play up Microsoft’s strengths against Apples weaknesses, the Zune HD tried to hit all the IPod’s strong points, and comes out second best. Somehow, even in Job’s absence, Apple was still able to maintain rigid control over every touch, click and byte over every product they make. This IS NOT Microsoft’s strength and they will fail trying to emulate it.
What Microsoft does best is give their development community fantastic tools for expanding the platform. This is the one area where Apple still lags far behind Microsoft. I say this as a Mac enterprise application developer who is currently suffering the pain of lack of binaries compatibility between 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6. But if I believe this review, Microsoft has abandoned developers for the Zune HD.
One example I have to mention is NControl. This is the best remote control application I’ve seen for Windows Media Center. And BTW, it runs on the IPod/IPhone platform. Where is the Zune version? Sorry, you can’t even start working on it yet because according to David Pogue the development environment and Zune app store is closed. I have a very difficult time believing this, especially when I see other announcements about XNA Game Studio and the like. If this isn’t true, Microsoft needs to get the NY Times to correct that part of the article.
So where can Microsoft trump Apple? The one evil thing Apple does is lock it’s users into a box which they are not allowed to escape. Now, Apple marketing does a wonderful job convincing customers they really want to live in that box, and life will be better if they just give Apple their credit card numbers, and never leave the box. Google has already begun to play on that theme by making Android as wide open as possible, and they must snicker every time the see Microsoft try to pull the Apple trick. But there are at least three places Microsoft can win while making Apple look like the evil empire:
#1: Jail-Break everything!
Take the handcuffs off the developers and let the hacking community loose. So much time is wasted fighting the DRM requirements for media that developers are losing interest in the Media Center platform. Take a hard look at XBMC. There’s simply no way that a company the size of Microsoft can compete with their development community when it comes to innovation like this. Rather than try to create a poor mimic of that interface, provide a mechanism for it to tie into the CableCARD pipeline and MCE recording engine. Yes, I know the legal issues surround DRM are non-trivial, but Microsoft is one of the few companies in the world with the resources to manage the Entertainment industry’s legal charge to their own death.
At the same time, open up the XBox to anyone. Sure, some small percentage might be lost to Linux gaming stations or crypto decoders, but it’s never going to be enough to effect the bottom line and that minor revenue loss will make up for itself in marketing value. It’s a much better solution than what you have today, where people buy the machine anyways, hack past the DRM and then just promote more bad press against the Microsoft experience.
Furthermore, this obviously puts Apple on the defensive, since they need to keep their users in the box to micro-manage the experience. It appears Microsoft is trying to emulate this with the Zune HD, and it’s a fatal mistake.
#2 Build a mobile browser that works on ALL WEB SITES
#3 Support the development community
Of course Microsoft hasn’t abandoned their developers, but they certainly weren’t included in the Zune HD announcement. The community needs Microsoft to do a couple things. One, solve the hard grungy problems, like CableCARD OCUR specs and running Flash and Silverlight on the same handheld device. Two, provide a roadmap through the plethora of Microsoft API’s and SDKs especially with respect to the three screens and the cloud. How about some $1M contests and prizes for the best Zune/Mobile app, or the best combo 3SC app? Apple basically abuses it’s development community, counting on the fanatical user community to beat them into submission. That strategy will not work for Microsoft, and I fear the company is trying to emulate Apple in this respect as well. The danger here is all the interesting applications get pushed to IPhone, Android and Palm. There’s still no Stitcher app for Windows Mobile. It’s now been pushed to your third or fourth port after BlackBerry, Android and soon Palm WebOS.
Now that Microsoft is releasing some amazing products (W7, XBox, Zune HD hardware), it’s time to go back to Microsoft’s roots, and focus on the developers. There’s plenty of cash in the coffers to throw at the development community, and the bang for the buck has to beat a Windows 7 launch party. This is the place Microsoft can win big and avoid the large company politics sucking the life out of product development.