Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
In playing the three beats that define the waltz of Apple's digital music strategy, Microsoft has sought greater simplicity with the Zune. But that's not really what it's about per se. If you were to point a gun to my head and ask what is the one word I would use to characterize Apple's design goals since the first iPod, I'd say, "What are you, crazy!? Get that thing away from my head! You could hurt someone with that!" And then I'd scream as loud as I could. But if you were to simply ask without the firearms, I'd say, "elegance."
Elegance differs from simplicity and even minimalism; words included in its definition include "restraint." and "grace," but also "opulence." iTunes and the iPod's surface and click wheel embody these words; the iTunes Music Store does not at this time, but its model does.
Apple likely does not pursue minimalist designs for their own sake. Every time a company adds a feature to a product, it adds the opportunity to do it wrong. Zune was an opportunity for Microsoft to look at the subscription model that has bedeviled its PlaysForSure partners and exercise restraint. Instead, it must now deal with the complexity of accounts that it has further complicated with an abstract points system. It also forces consumers to choose between two music acquisition methods that compete with themselves on some level. Microsoft implemented RDS for the Zune's FM radio, but the information often comes in one-word chunks, or is contradictory.
And then there's WiFi, the Zune's headline feature. As a peer-to-peer implementation at launch, Microsoft has dispensed with the setup issues needed for infrastructure networks today. Nevertheless, the whole rigmarole around the terms of sharing (really more akin to "lending") seems more trouble than it's worth. WiFi is worthwhile and community-driven music discovery is a win for consumers, artists, merchants and labels, but the place to encourage music sharing should be in software or on Web sites that can easily reach millions overnight, as Napster and Rhapsody have done. If Microsoft wanted to enable secure and limited portable listening on the Zune device, it would have been a much richer experience for Zune users to have that extended from the Zune software or Zune Marketplace.
So, perhaps Microsoft is not trying to beat Apple at its own game after all. Microsoft typically enters a market trailing in many respects, and seeks to redirect the focus of the market. Taking a cue from its success with Xbox Live, Microsoft says that music is a social experience, and it can be. But the music player market is very different than the video game console market. Content is commoditized, revision cycles are shorter, and the experience is far less immersive. It would be much more difficult to build a thriving Xbox Live community if it were not built on the foundation of multiplayer gaming. In contrast, multiplayer music is called being in a band.
The Zune's hardware design doesn't try hard to avoid being labeled a slab and its texture -- while nothing if not fingerprint-resistant -- doesn't feel very pleasant. Its software's installation process seems prone to lengthy loading time and crashes. However, the Zune's interface does a better job of embracing the "opulence" that is associated with elegance than the iPod's. It's graphically richer (even though album cover art often looks like a fuzzy scan), and the transitions between screens are engaging compared to Apple's simple swipes and sometimes numbing textual lists. Improving the polish of the iPod's interface while retaining its simplicity would be the best lesson Apple could take from the Zune.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.