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Memo to Microsoft: Shouldn’t the Best Product Win?

For years, Mac users have been accustomed to a world where being second-best is good enough for most people. So even though most everyone who puts the Mac OS and Windows into a direct comparison concludes that the former is better than the letter, the marketplace made a different decision.

Sure, you can point to some serious missteps on the part of Apple over the years and aggressive marketing and updating by Microsoft as reasons for this state of affairs. But that doesn’t mean Microsoft can always get away with an inferior product. On the other hand, many agree that development of Netscape had stagnated, that it had become buggy and bloated when Internet Explorer emerged triumphant.

Today, Windows is entrenched, and, even with the long delays and the loss of critical features, you can expect that the Vista operating system will do well. Sure, Apple and Linux are nipping at their heels, but Microsoft won the desktop operating systems long ago, and it will be years, if ever, for that situation to change.

Yes, it is true that Firefox has clearly gained at the expense of Internet Explorer. Again, the browser that comes standard on the vast majority of personal computers will remain dominant, although it’s good to see Microsoft putting resources into developing Internet Explorer all over again.

But Microsoft can’t always deliver a number one product or service.

When they made their first forays into a technology for DRM for companies to put into their “iPod killers,” it didn’t work. There was Janus, there was PlaysForSure, and Microsoft finally decided to give it to their partners and try to go it alone. Well, not completely alone, as the Zune music player is actually a rebadged Toshiba product with a new interface and online software package.

In other words, it was a rush job, a desperate attempt to have something for sale in time for the holiday season, but just barely. You wonder how long Zune was baking in the oven before it was unleashed and how much sense it really makes, other than perhaps smacking of desperation.

Although Zune has gotten a few decent reviews in some parts, and is probably a fairly good product in most respects, did Microsoft really believe it could go to war against Apple’s iPod with second-rate merchandise? Others have weighed in on Zune’s pathetic wireless connection feature, for example. Yes, it’s Wi-Fi, but you can’t sync with a desktop computer, you can’t sync with a hot spot. You can sync with another Zune, if you can find one, within about 30 feet or so; some suggest as far as 50 feet, but that’s not what the official specs say.

Worse, any music file you send is infused by the player with a DRM that limits it to three plays or three days, whichever comes first. And you can’t just forward the file, even if it still runs, to a third Zune. What’s more, the tune doesn’t have to be one acquired from the Zune Marketplace, but one you ripped from a CD you own, or even acquired free and clear from a legal download source without any rights restrictions. No doubt Microsoft succumbed to pressure from the music companies, as I cannot imagine how they’d come up with such a misbegotten scheme all by themselves. Certainly not with a focus group.

In addition, a small amount of money from every single sale goes to Universal Music, and you can just bet the other media companies will eventually get their share too. And that money will be paid even if you never buy a single item from Microsoft’s music service.

What about the songs you rented or bought from Microsoft’s previous musical ventures? Forget about it, because they won’t work. Sure there are always third party conversion possibilities, but you can bet that Microsoft isn’t going to refund your wasted money, even if bought it direct from MSN Music. Remember that one?

Indeed, Microsoft is working hard to hide the fact that they make Zune, as the company name doesn’t even appear on the player.

Then there’s the curious marketing campaign, which employs the questionable phrase “Welcome to the Social.” That sounds like an aging Baby Boomer recalling the Saturday night events at a summer camp. Do they really consider that relevant in the 21st century?

So how is the public reacting to Zune? The jury is still out, but initial sales have been reported as tepid. Microsoft clearly didn’t do very much to build anticipation for the product, as Sony did with PlayStation 3.

Now you can’t assume that Amazon is an indicator of public sentiment, but it provides a clue. After a brief stay in the bottom of Amazon’s top ten, the Black version of the Zune is now below 50. The Brown and White editions fare much worse in the sales rankings.

Even the players from Microsoft’s former partners (or existing partners, depending on whether you actually believe PlaysForSure won’t go away in the next year or two) have better sales.

Sure, it’s possible we’ll see a tremendous advertising push after Thanksgiving, and more compelling sales results, or maybe not.

Microsoft seems to think it will have time to improve Zune year after year until enough people are prepared to buy into this scheme. Somehow they believe Apple is standing still, or that other music player makers aren’t going to also try harder to stake out a bigger piece of the pie.

At least the better product remains triumphant this time. Microsoft hasn’t figured that out yet, and some believe it may just be a little too late for them.