Microsoft Exec Had The Right Idea On MP3 Players Three Years Ago

from the ignored dept

As part of an Iowa antitrust case, an interesting email from Windows boss Jim Allchin has been released, and it gives a pretty damning review of Microsoft and its partners’ attempts at competing with the iPod. Given the subject line “sucking on media players”, the November 2003 email also reveals that Allchin wanted to talk with Steve Jobs and Apple to better build support for the iPod into Windows Media Player after a “really terrible” experience with Windows and a Creative music player. That, of course, never happened. Microsoft instead set up a committee to develop its iPod killer, though it resulted in the Zune instead. It’s been met with poor sales and reviews, which doesn’t seem like much of a surprise given some of its crippled features. Some have said that the Zune needs to be more like Windows in order to succeed, but that’s pretty off base. Allchin’s idea, of working with Apple to make iPod users’ experiences with Windows better, was a good one, really. By making Windows or Windows Media Player work more seamlessly and easily with the popular product, Microsoft would be enhancing the value of its own products. Now, it’s just wasting resources trying to replace the iPod, something its corporate culture makes very difficult, if not impossible.


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Comments on “Microsoft Exec Had The Right Idea On MP3 Players Three Years Ago”

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17 Comments
duane (user link) says:

Zune as competition for iPod

I´ve never been a big fan of Microsoft, but I think the Zune has gotten an unfair rap. First of all, I own a Zune, and my experience with it has been great. Second, I think that this tendency of many articles, many on this site included, to state that most Zune reviews are bad is just not true. Most of the reviews that I read before buying were at worst mixed, and their reasons for being mixed were not because the Zune failed where the iPod succeeded, but because some of the extra things that the Zune could do weren´t great (such as the wireless). The Zune excels at what it´s made for (playing music), and most reviews that I´ve seen even give the Zune higher marks than the iPod in UI, where the iPod was supposed to be the king.

Finally, I am surprised that Techdirt, which is usually the champion of competition, would suggest that Microsoft should have just focused on the iPod instead of entering the ring on its own. One of my major problems with the iPod/iTunes thing is its dominance of the market. Let´s face it, if Apple could have, it would be Microsoft; maybe a prettier, cooler Microsoft, but Microsoft nonetheless. Competition, even coming from Microsoft, is a good thing, and for once it seems that they´ve done something worthwhile. Give the Zune more time before you decide to just count it out

misanthropic humanist says:

Re: Zune as competition for iPod

duane: “The Zune excels at what it´s made for (playing music)

I don’t think the issue here is really whether the Zune is a good product or not. I’ve never tried one and I expect, as you say, it performs the basic task of playing music as it should. The issue is the *process* that Microsoft went through to get there and why they came to the market so late. A device to play music really isn’t a very complicated thing, you need a basic processor, some non-volatile storage, a DAC, a simple display, a battery… that’s about it.

With a fraction of Microsofts resources I would have been able to get a working prototype together in 3-6 months.

The problem here is that Microsoft could have had a product to compete with Apple out three or four years ahead of the Zune. But they didn’t. The reason why is something we can only speculate on, but from the email and other anecdotes it seems that the policy of Microsoft has always been *against* the portable mp3 media player concept. They only jumped ship at the last minute after realising Apple had made a huge success of the iPod.

The thing about “talking to Jobs” is about interoperability and discussing some sensible common standards. But it seems like Allchin was cornered by the giants impossible heirarchy of policies and its allegiances with BigMedia.

How can you possibly develop a product when the entire ethos of your company is against it?

Myself, I owned an mp3 player before the iPod. I still have my ugly and bulky iRiver. Its design is extremely simple. So simple that I’ve rewritten the firmware to do some other interesting things. You can mount it as an ordinary vfat drive on any machine over USB and treat it like a normal disk. I’ve upgraded the drive from 10GB to 20GB to 60GB to 120GB in the last couple of years – it’s just a standard micro HD device.

Microsoft on te other hand probably spent 50% of their dev time trying to implement DRM type nonsense, breaking the bluetooth spec, basically doing lots of things that don’t have anything to do with the essential operation of an mp3 music player. And all because their engineers were badgered by stupid policies from circus of committees.

NPGMBR (profile) says:

Zune as competition for iPod

Duane you took the words right out of my mouth. I myself own a Dell DJ. For one I don’t like having the same thing everyone else has. The DJ failed because those idiots at Dell didn’t promote it but it was a great alternative to the iPod when the first iPod came out. What I find odd about this article is that as you suggested they advocate that Microsoft join up with Apple when people continually get up in arms when a company gains too much market share and they loose choice. Thats a very serious, lack of credibility on the part of the writer of this article. Don’t get me wrong, I think the iPod is great, but like I said, I just hate to have the same Honda or Toyota that everyone else is driving because its the hip or cool product out there.

misanthropic humanist says:

valley of the dinosaurs

Its quite sad reading that. Committees are where good ideas go to die, and big corps are where good people go insane. I don’t think “talking to Jobs” was sarcasm or a threat, it was the only sensible option on the table. Wherever I’ve met smart people who are alert, forward-looking and passionate they are always unhappy in a culture like I image Microsofts to be. I guess it’s a function of size, history and impossible policy, but Microsoft sounds like the modern day version of a Soviet bureaucracy. When it gets to that, the company needs breaking up for its *own good*, nevermind everyone elses.

Danny says:

I agree that the Zune is a disaster but “By making Windows or Windows Media Player work more seamlessly and easily with the popular product, Microsoft would be enhancing the value of its own products.” Huh? The iPod will never work as seamlessly with any player better than it does with iTunes. This is Apple’s choice. Even if it did there is no way Apple would have let WMP access the iTunes store so and again – even if it did. iTunes would always do it better. Your approach doesn’t do a thing for MS other than invoke the silly boilerplate paragraph above.

I don’t think that the Zune works at all but ceding the money part of the business to Apple makes no sense either. The windows approach would at least be better than that. MS wouldn’t have had to waste a lot of resourcs in providing plays for sure partners a common set of features to have and then allowing them to implement them in various, hopefully creative ways.

Zuner says:

Zune vs. Ipod

As a Zune owner and Ipod ex-owner, I have to say the only complaint I have about the Zune is that it didn’t come out sooner. As a user of both devices, I have to say I am much happier with my Zune. First of all, the battery life is much longer, the device, although a bit robust, is not as delicate as the ipod, and the OS is compatible with my computer. The biggest advantage ipod has, is the huge bandwagon it created and the blind fold it has put over consumers eyes. So everyone can stick with itunes, I will stick with mytunes (ZUNE).

meshbox design (user link) says:

Looking from the Outside - Who Says Apple Wanted a

I dont have a Zune but got to experience them at CES 2007. Who is to say that MS didnt make overtures to Apple but was rejected or presented with a truly horrible deal? If you look at iPod related licensing and business, it is not very friendly to third parties. To get the Made for iPod logo, you have to give up a 10% royalty. If you dont use connection methods that Apple approves for making hardware, you have zero chance of getting your product into the Apple Store. And, if you want to get into the Apple Store, any idea how much of a percentage you need to give up? A lot. I think MS would rather not play that game – music players are just too strategic market to place your fate in the hands of another company (a strategy that Apple also follows).

UniBoy says:

Zune failure

While the Zune may work fine for some folks as a 5G iPod replacement, it is going to wind up being too little too late. Apple is not standing still. How can the Zune, unable to compete with a 2005 iPod, possibly hope to compete with the 6G iPod that we are almost certain to see this year? It will be “back to the drawing boards” for Microsoft, and they will still be oh so far behind.

If Microsoft want to win, they need to stop trying to play catch-up, and actually come out with a product that really has “Wow!” Microsoft seems to have completely lost touch…They think that saying “Wow” themselves (over Vista, in this case) is enough to make people want a product. Uh, bad news guys. It’s actually the CUSTOMERS that you want to get saying “Wow!”

NPGMBR (profile) says:

Re: Zune failure

I’d say give MS some time. They took this same strategy with the XBox and although the initial XBox did better in its initial release than the Zune I’m guessing the second generation Zune will do exactly what the XBox 360 did by including better features and design. You have to keep in mind that the same team that developed the XBox also developed the Zune.

weebit says:

Well if Microsoft wanted Zune to work, they should of made Zune compatible with other hardware. I would of released a version that works with like maybe 3 to 5 different hardware, then I would of released like 3 to 5 versions of Zune. The first would work with certain hardware the second with other hardware. That would wow customers. make them different colors, and make them color specific. Neon sounds good. They would just select the type zune they wanted. Yes it is a bit much, but choice is good, and none of them have choice.

I came up with a idea months ago, but I do not know if MS will use the idea. They seemed interested, but who knows. My idea was for MS to make their own Security Media files for users, and make them available on the desktop. They didn’t listen to their customers about Zume, I don’t expect them to listen to my idea now. What a pity, that MS has to act like they have a monkey up their butt (pun intended) Even if they do use the advice, I bet they screw it up too. I told them to make the media files entertaining. I wonder if they even know what that word is now. lol

PhysicsGuy says:

problems with the zune

personally, i like neither the zune nor the ipod, but the zune is just as good (or equally as bad, however you want to look at it) as the ipod. the thing is the ipod has had since 2001 to make a name for itself. the ipod also took roughly 3 years to dominate the market… the zune didn’t have good sales within its first month and people started declaring it a failure. anyone else see a problem with that?

Yuniverse (profile) says:

Apple not standing around

Just as UniBoy has mentioned above, despite Zune being a good machine compared to iPod, Apple isn’t waiting for Microsoft or any other MP3 makers to catch up(?).

Just look at the potential of the new iPhone. It’s actually iPod with PDA and cell phone built in. Sure the storage space is lacking, but when it comes out in Zune(er, i mean June) who know if it won’t have 20 or 30GB. After all, Apple is known for surprising consumers and investors by over-accomplishing their own goals.

Compared to iPhone, Zune has too much to catch up for at least 2-3 years.

RiskyMethodz says:

The Zune is a failure because they came into the market and it’s too little too late, right?

MS came “too little too late” with the XBox. You couldn’t even try to convince me the XBox was as good as a PS2. Playstation/Playstation 2 were king of the consoles for years, in my book and the books of many others. Now look at the roles they play: PS3 is a flop, Xbox360 dominates the market.

“Too little too late” are for those with no creativity. What, exactly, could the “omg new 6g ipod!!1” implement that isn’t equally as possible with an improved second gen Zune? Everyone seems to think that Apple is just so amazing because they sell computers in a white case. Microsoft is just as able to create the future benchmark of digital music players as Apple is. Apple just has a head start with brand name and fanboys.

I would guess that MS “waited too long” because they didn’t expect the market to go so nuts for music players. Can anyone remember personal cassette players causing such a ruckus? Did walkmans generate this much profit and hype?

I’m not an MS fanboy. I don’t even have a Zune. I Just hate how often people make stupid comments regarding the “untouchable” Apple. I hate Apple fanboys. And I hate Apple’s business model.

dorpass says:

Re: Re:

XBOX360 dominates the market? Let’s see what happens in 2 years, when quite possibly Wii will spank both Son and MS.

The problem with Zune is not just “too little, too late” but that it’s trying to beat iPod by copying one of its worst features, DRM. Market leaders are not made through creation of a “just as good” product, but products that are CONSIDERABLY better. Zune falls flat on its face on that one. It’s not a bad player and has some nifty features, but the nagging DRM that pops up in every way possible is just ridiculous.

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