The Clicker: Zune, it's all about the ecosystem

Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, an opinion column on entertainment and technology:

Upon learning of Microsoft's rumored iPod competitor, the Zune, iPod fanatics could be heard around the globe: "It's just an iPod rip-off." "Can't the boys in Redmond do anything without copying the mighty Jobs?", loyal Appleists screamed at the top of their lungs. "It's got a scroll-wheel. It's got a screen. It will probably play music too! Will the copying ever stop?"

While all of the above may be true, repeat after me: It's not about the player. Don't get me wrong -- the iPod is a nifty little machine. In classic Apple style, the iPod is sleek and stylish; its clean lines and rolled edges ooze class and quality. Heck, the iPod is nearly lickable. However, while going to market with such a device certainly doesn't hurt your chances, it's not the root of the iPod's success. The secret to Apple's success in the online music market has always been the ease of a) buying music and b) getting music onto the device. It's really that simple. In short, it's all about the ecosystem.

For years the debate has raged on. Microsoft has stood firm; they have boldly and publicly declared, "We give the user choices. We're not about an end-to-end solution. Our PlaysForSure program allows a user to pick the device that best suits his or her needs. Blah Blah Blah." Apple, on the other hand, has chosen a different route. Much like Henry Ford's oft-quoted response to choice in the Model-T, Apple has said, "You can use any device you want as long as it's the iPod." There is no doubt who the winner was in round one. The overwhelming success of the iPod speaks volumes.

Does that mean that Microsoft was wrong? Perhaps not. Perhaps they were just being a tad disingenuous in regard to their true plans. It's quite possible that we're just now seeing Microsoft's first real play in the digital audio player market. Perhaps, just perhaps, Microsoft has been stalling. And while claiming that Microsoft has just been stalling (as opposed to, say, clueless) might give them credit for an inordinate amount of self-awareness, we must closely examine this particular situation. Here are a couple things to consider.

Much to the chagrin of die-hard Apple fans, Microsoft actually does produce decent hardware. Their mice, keyboards, and routers (when they were still being produced), are all considered to be top of the line. Some might even argue that Microsoft is too good at industrial design. After all, we've all experienced the extreme emotional letdown after discovering Microsoft's OEM partners will be producing watered-down versions of the Microsoft prototypes. The lack of a Microsoft produced media device has very little to do with Microsoft's actual ability to produce one.

More likely, Microsoft has chosen not to produce their own DAP because they have lacked the software infrastructure needed to come close to iTunes' ease of use. That's right, ironically, the software giant's Achilles heel hasn't been the hardware. Try as they might, they just couldn't produce the seamless software to compete with Apple. Windows Media Player has historically been a confusing mess, and while Windows Media Player 11 looks to be making some improvements, it would still fail the "could your mother do it" test. The iPod, of course, does not.

Well, all that could be about to change. With Zune, the race begins in earnest. Freed from the burden of the Windows Media Player legacy, the Xbox team could get a chance to show that they too can do "easy as Apple pie."

We all knew that this time would come. Predictions that the Xbox was a "way to get into the living room" are as old as the Xbox itself. There was never any doubt that Microsoft would do something in the arena. You don't sink billions of dollars into a product without a greater plan -- and now, finally, we might just be about to see some of the goods.

If recent rumors are to be believed, the upcoming device will not be part of the standard PlaysForSure program. The implications of this rumor are quite interesting. While it's possible that this could simply mean a deeper focus on URGE, it's far more Allard-like to consider an end-to-end solution delivered via the 360. And why not? Xbox has already integrated your personal music into the games. Buying that music through them is the next logical step, especially if it's their DAP you're using. Furthermore, this level of integration would be a perfect fit for both their emerging social network and also their emerging economy of points. That's right -- by charging people "points" for songs, Xbox might just be able to break from the standard 99-cent price point.

Besides the much-discussed WiFi integration and its resulting music-sharing feature possibilities, creating an Xbox end-to-end solution could offer other interesting song-sale opportunities. For instance, imagine being able to listen to the soundtracks of any of your Live competitors. Like a song you here mid-game? Bookmark it. Buy it later. It's a natural fit.

Yes, Apple's platform has trounced Microsoft's in the media device market wars. However, Apple would be foolish to believe that they're going up against Microsoft this time. This time they could be going up against Xbox, and if it really is the ecosystem that's helping to drive iPod sales, Apple could just have a fight on its hands this time.

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