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Is Microsoft Dooming the Zune?

With extremely limited fanfare, Microsoft this week confirmed analyst predictions and introduced the second generation Zune players, which sport basic specs and pricing similar to the iPod.

Now when Apple introduces a new product these days, except for minor revisions to existing models, such as Macs, there’s a huge amount of anticipation that may go on for weeks or months before the truth is actually revealed. Apple seldom does more than send the press an invitation about a week in advance about a special event, with broad hints as to what it’s about. That action turns growing anticipation into fevered demand.

Sure, Microsoft certainly has enough cash in its bank account to fund any marketing campaign it wants, and to hire the best people on the planet to manage it. They can also bring the top ad agencies in the business into play to devise a properly enticing stream of broadcast, online and print ads to accompany the new product’s presence in the marketplace.

Instead, we have Bill Gates delivering the lame excuse that the new Zune is the best they could come up with after six months of work, and that things will only get better next year. You’d think, after all these years on the front lines, he would have learned something.

Now, even if you were tempted to buy a Zune this time instead of an iPod, how are you supposed to react to such an absurdly foolish statement? Would you buy one of those players anyway, knowing it’s really not all that great and that something much better is in the wings, or will you wait till next year?

Or just go back to something that’s reliable, predictable, and usually just works, which means another iPod?

True, the latest iPods may indeed be the best Apple could do to meet its development schedule, but Steve Jobs will nonetheless tout it as the greatest music player ever conceived by man. Could aliens from another star system do better? Sure, but Jobs will never admit that.

You see, Jobs and crew understand what proper salesmanship really means, and that is to put your best foot forward. The product you’re selling is never a compromise dictated by the limitations of the technology and the time and funding you allocated to create it. No, it has to be the best of the breed. You have to feel excited about it, not bored to death.

If a company’s leadership can’t at least act enthusiastic about their work, how do they expect customers to react? How come Microsoft hasn’t figured this out yet?

I’m not saying that the Zune is a bad music player, or that it isn’t worth the purchase price. Indeed, based on the reviews of the original model and the promises made for the revision, it seems pretty decent in the scheme of things. One sensible improvement is removing the three-day time limit on media squirted to a Zune, so you can listen at a later time. Sure, there’s still that silly three-play limit, but at least the file won’t self-destruct prematurely. Being able to sync your Zune wirelessly is also a positive development.

However, the upgraded Zune’s look and general feel, at least based on early descriptions and photos, smack too much of a blatant iPod imitation. During all those antitrust skirmishes in the U.S. and Europe, didn’t Microsoft loudly proclaim that it wanted to be left free to innovate?

So, other than the expanded Wi-Fi capability, do you see any signs of innovation in the Zune, or is it just more imitation? Sure, Microsoft got away with that with Windows, delivering an operating system that is good enough, but not great, largely imitating what has gone before, mostly by a certain company headquartered in Cupertino, California. But the iPod has already run away with the market, which increases the pressure on Microsoft to excel, if it can.

Once again, Microsoft’s key business plan with the Zune — as with the Xbox — is persistence. If they keep it going long enough, even if they have to suffer billions of dollars of losses along the way, they somehow believe that the public will come around and embrace second-rate rather than something that’s really innovative.

Now it may well be that Microsoft can make the Zune into a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it will require clever marketing, and lots and lots of advertising to convince people that it’s really better than the iPod.

That is something not so easily accomplished. If Microsoft had delivered the Zune six years ago, before the iPod became a cross-platform sensation, they might have had a chance to gain serious traction in this market segment. It still wouldn’t hurt to build a Mac-compatible music store, and invade Apple’s own turf. Perhaps they’d rather have us believe that the Mac platform isn’t large enough to garner serious attention, but with sales of new Macs increasing rapidly, that’s a foolish decision.

While Microsoft has had no compunctions about using hard-edge and sometimes deceptive marketing tactics to expand its dominance in operating systems and office software suites, why do they seem so timid about the Zune? Do they fear more antitrust attention, or maybe the company’s executives no longer have that “fire in the belly” that spurs people on to do the impossible?