The Zune HD: Another Bullet Point Design from Microsoft

May 27th, 2009

It seems all too common. Rather than compete with Apple by building a better product, Microsoft continues to use focus groups and PowerPoint presentations to devise the features that its rival products do not possess. Worse, this is done without regard to whether those features are even desired or useful.

Take this fall’s contribution to the world of iPod poseurs, known as the Zune HD. Now we all know that HD is supposed to stand for high definition television nowadays, although it once stood for hard drive. But, in addition to supporting HD video, Microsoft has decided we also need support for HD radio. Sure, it’ll have Multi-Touch capability, but that’s normal these days.

HD radio? Never heard of it? Do you even care?

Well, if you must know, HD radio is actually meant as an enhancement and perhaps an eventual replacement for standard or terrestrial broadcasting. This technology, which has been around for several years, adds a digital component to the analog AM and FM signals. As a result, AM suddenly sounds near as good as FM, and FM delivers audio quality that’s said to rival that of a CD.

All well and good. Indeed, hundreds or perhaps thousands of stations in many U.S. cities have already made the costly conversions to their transmission equipment to support HD radio. The problem is that, so far at least, nobody is really listening, and there’s the rub.

But it gets worse than that, and evidently Microsoft isn’t considering any of this in their marketing plans. You see, because of possible signal conflicts with other stations, some HD signals on the AM band cannot be transmitted at night, which is when most reception problems occur, so your back to analog and all that static. More to the point, the signal may not cover the same region as the analog variation, something people who are using antennas to receive stations recently converted from analog to digital are beginning to realize.

It appears to me that Microsoft is supporting HD radio not because they think it has possibilities for success, but because Apple doesn’t. Period.

Looking back at the original Zune, it’s stock in trade was support for Wi-Fi, before Apple added that feature when it brought out the iPhone touch. The Zune employed wireless networking not to sync the gadget’s music, but to “squirt” songs to a friend, songs that were severely crippled with onerous DRM and hence gave the recipient three days to listen before it vanished.

Now other digital media devices have included FM receivers. Well, at least they supported a format people actually used, but it didn’t help them gain sales traction against the iPod. If you must have a radio on your iPod, you buy the appropriate accessory. Why pay for a feature that most people won’t use? The same, of course, holds true for HD radio, and the justification is even flimsier.

This is where Apple has been able to advance against its competition. Yes, you can probably find more features in Windows, particularly when it comes to control panel-based customization, but most of that simply engenders confusion on the part of regular people. If you must customize your Mac beyond the basic settings, you can always do a Google search for a liberal selection of Terminal tips, buy an appropriate book on the subject, or download one of many third-party apps that will do all that stuff for you from within a simple graphical interface.

It is not too difficult, you see, to add features to a product. Too many features, however, without proper thought to correct implementation, simply make it harder to use. In fact product engineering teams have to consider, first and foremost, what to take out. This is akin in some ways to editing an article or a book. Get rid of the needless fluff and concentrate on what makes everything come together into a unified whole. The second thing is to figure out how the new feature best integrates with the ones that are already present, and that can take extra time to accomplish properly.

Apple, for the most part, seems to have a corporate culture that understands these concepts. Sure, they fail from time to time, and also leave bugs that require periodic updates. To be sure, I’ve often felt that Apple has, in recent years, released some of its hardware and software just a little bit too early, thus causing some measure of grief on the part of early adopters.

Microsoft, however, has apparently learned nothing from its experience with the Zune. They cannot just mimic an existing product, tack on an extra feature or two, and expect it to become a resounding success. That may have succeeded with Windows and their productivity apps, but the concept hasn’t helped them in their failed efforts to become a consumer electronics powerhouse.

My feeling is that they shouldn’t bother. The world doesn’t need a Zune HD, and maybe it doesn’t need HD radio either. But it’ll take many more more tragic failures before Microsoft gets the message.

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15 Responses to “The Zune HD: Another Bullet Point Design from Microsoft”

  1. tom B says:

    Excellent article. You know, I don’t think people at MSFT, or cell phone makers, or some web developers ever sit down at try their products THEMSELVES.

    I used to have a cheap, “free”, low end Motorola phone– a V60, I think. No features to speak of. I had to retire it when it shorted in a rain storm after 4 years. Dropped it many times; no problem.

    I got a cheapo Samsung to replace it. You’d thing, being 4 years more recent, it might be at least as good as the MOT phone. Not so. It had features: 1) a 1 megapixel camera that a) turns on every time you grip the phone too hard b.) doesn’t give you the pictures without an extra charge from Verizon. 2) Voice activation that a) turns on at random b.) can’t be permanently deactivated, as far as I can tell, after much investigation. 3) voicemail/missed call indicators that are too hard to click off, after you’ve checked your messages.

    THIS is why no one can beat Apple; they actually prototype/storyboard the products instead of just haphazardly cramming in features like MS word does–features with unexpected properties that are hard to fully control/deactivate!

  2. william says:

    And the ability to play 720p video on an external monitor (and not on the internal screen)? Who will want to do that!!!

  3. Walt French says:

    Gosh, quite a rant against the value of HD radio in a music gizmo, about which the worst thing you can say is that despite its advantages, it’s not a game-changer.

    I have no idea whether Microsoft’s implementation is any good, but I listen to two FM stations here at work that have marginal signals here in the concrete canyons of SF; the multipath-resistant HD could be a godsend in getting a nice clean signal from that great, all-jazz, commercial-free KCSM. I’m not about to scrap my (sixth!) iPod anytime soon, but it WOULD be nice to plug it into my speakers and get their expert music programming in better fidelity than webcasts deliver.

    Plus which: a couple of stations I don’t normally listen to seem to offer interesting “-2” channels not otherwise available. Just that I’m too cheap to spend $250 on a dedicated receiver and possibly find out it doesn’t have enough advantage in my location.

    So why shouldn’t the Zune try to get ahead of the curve? As you note, it’s not exactly tearing the cover off the ball with copycat features.

  4. @ Walt French: If Microsoft wants to get ahead of the curve, why not add features people really want?


  5. MichaelT says:

    The Zune iPod me2+. I expect it will be a good product with fair sales. But no iPod killer. It’s been said many times, and sums up this story: It isn’t about the features, it is about the user experience.

  6. Synthmeister says:

    I can think of at least 3 “features” the iPod touch doesn’t have which might actually be useful and which MS could have used for their new Zune.

    GPS, stereo bluetooth, camera.

    Maybe even Sirius XM ready out of the box. (And Sirius could use the money and exposure.)

    And not until the Fall? You’ve got to be kidding me. By then, Apple will have OS 3.0 long out the door, a new touch, a new iPhone, and probably 50 million touches/iPhone units in the wild. MS needed this thing yesterday.

    Not to mention, no details on the app store or developer SDK, etc.

  7. AlfieJr says:

    good points in this post.

    left out that OTA radio – including HD radio – is on a long downward path anyway due to two powerful forces: greed and technology. the national media chains have gobbled up nearly every station in major metro markets and converted them all to formula playlist formats that play the same stuff in whatever genre over and over and over and over, run by robots instead of DJ’s that actually know anything about music at all. it’s not worth listening too anyplace but your car. this just when web radio and podcasts have become a real alternative, bringing good radio stations from all over the nation and world of every kind – plus local stations for news/sports/talk – to your home or portable player with fewer or no commercials. free iPhone/touch apps like AOL radio do a great job. OTA radio is headed the same way as newspapers into substantial obsolescence.

    very good chance that the touch will get GPS/compass location services when the 2009 model is released this fall. maybe even a camera. this at the same time as the Zilch HD is released. that would be a massacre in the marketplace.

  8. Joe S says:

    @tom B

    I had a similar experience with a new phone. I had had he same phone for 9 years. Decided to change it for something smaller until the iPhone G3 came out. Both the phones were made by Nokia. My new phone had many more features, including a color higher resolution screen. It was much harder to use, perhaps due to the additional features. The killer was that it was unreliable. I let the battery drain once, that required a new battery. It also stopped working once. I took it in and it turned out that the SIM card needed to be removed and put back in. I would have been much happier with far few features and the same reliability of my older phone. I am very pleased with my G3 iPhone. It is so easy to use.

    I am so glad that Apple showed an industry that did not understand its customer’s needs what a phone could actually be. The established industry, Verizon in particular, was so intent on over controlling its network and reducing customer control that it deserves the loss of customers it has gotten. The phone is part of the network, idiots.

  9. Jerri Blank says:

    First of all, your information about HD radio is outdated. When HD Radio was in the trial stage (2003-2007), AM stations couldn’t broadcast HD radio signals at night. In late 2007, the FCC approved HD radio for all terrestrial radio stations, and lifted the ban on HD at night. So your information on that particular “bullet point” is about 2 years out of date.

    Secondly, by the time the Zune HD hits the market, the signal strength of HD radio is going to be significantly stronger than it is today. Currently, the signal strength of the HD signal is limited to just 1% of the strength of the analog signal that particular station is putting out. Because the digital signal travels farther on less power than the analog signal, this is enough to cover metropolitan areas and the surrounding suburbs, but rural communities have a hard time picking up the signal.

    The HD Radio Alliance and the National Association of Broadcasters has petitioned the FCC to allow the digital signal strength to be pumped up from the current 1% to 10% of the analog strength. The FCC will decide on that topic this summer. That the signal strength will be increased is beyond question, the only question is whether it will be the full 10% the radio industry wants.

    If the FCC allows the digital signal to be pumped up to 10% the strength of the analog signal, that would mean that more of the country will be covered by digital radio signals than by analog (because the digital signal carries so much farther on less power).

    The Zune HD isn’t coming out until October, by which time HD radio signals will stronger than they are today. Maybe we won’t get the full 10%, but even if the FCC only let them up the signal strength to 2%, the HD radio signal would be twice as strong by fall of 2009 as it is today.

  10. @ Jerri Blank: I’m actually pleased to hear that HD radio is making progress. When the radios are cheaper, I might even consider it.

    Do I detect from your message that you are somehow involved with this enterprise?


  11. Jerri Blank says:

    I do work for a radio station that broadcasts two HD channels, but I don’t work for iBiquity or Microsoft, and I don’t have a Zune. I love my iPhone and use it to listen to internet radio in the car. But I think it’s great that finally there’s going to be a name brand portable HD radio on the market and I hope they succeed with it. HD Radio is a great technology, it gives you crystal-clear audio and lots of extra stations, all without a monthly subscription fee. But we advertise it exclusively on the radio, and our target market (young people and tech-savvy early adopters) abandoned the radio years ago, so the people who would be most likely to buy one don’t even know it exists. Microsoft has told the HD Radio Alliance that they will advertise the Zune’s HD Radio capability in their television commercials, which will be a first and we hope will help build awareness of the technology among the people who would actually be willing to try it.

    For more information about the proposed HD Radio broadcast power increase, see:

    It says comments were due by January 4, 2009, but they actually extended that through July, with a decision expected in September.

    Right now, if you live in a city, getting an HD radio will effectively double the choices available to you on your FM dial. Chicago and LA, two of the early test markets for this technology, each have 63 HD stations already broadcasting. Most other cities have between 30-40 HD stations already.

    As far as making the switch to HD, this is the one I have in my car, it’s only $119 at Best Buy or $95 off, it also has a CD player and a front auxiliary input for ipod/iphone:

    When you do make the plunge, make sure you get one that has the HD Radio tuner built-in. Almost all in-dash decks now say “HD Ready!” but that’s just a scam on the part of the manufacturers. An “HD Ready” radio is just a regular analog radio. If you wanted to turn an “HD Ready” radio into an HD Radio you’d need to buy a separate HD Radio tuner that’s bigger than the radio itself!

  12. @ Jerri Blank: Thanks for the update. When it comes time to acquire another vehicle, I’ll look for the HD option, seriously. And maybe even a home set. The Best Buy store is 5 minutes away.

    I don’t think much of the Zune, but I’m a great fan of radio, as most of our regular readers know.

    And perhaps we should get in touch with you if the station you work with would like a couple of killer shows. :):)


  13. Ryan H says:

    I own a macbook myself and have had about 4 or 5 ipods in my day. I must say, when writing an article about an upcoming product, be sure to be careful about being so biased and making yourself so vulnerable to failure. Have you even tried the products? How can you sit back and rant without even having tried the thing? How do you know what people want, are you everybody because you’ll kiss Steve Job’s shoes? Everyone in my family has HD radio, and they love it. Given, it’s not actually better quality, but it sounds like it, coming in clearer. I also own a Zune myself. I like it because it’s simple and easy to use, and it gets my to my music instead of being a person who has to go around like some apple missionary. The product itself is music focused, not elegance focused, and doesn’t have a massive following that stamps it with brand name expectation. Some people like that you know….. I’m not trying to bash, but your article is one of the least helpful I’ve read. Unless you are an apple freak and are too biased to ever come near anyone else’s products for fear of damage to your apple social status, then get a life man. Once again, have you tried the piece your reviewing? No.

  14. Marco Vazquez says:

    I am a young mac user but i also have a Zune and enjoy it very much. I am on the line of Purchasing a Zune or ipod next. I think If Microsoft really wants this to take off they need to make Zune compatible with mac computers. This will help to open a new market to a newer generation that Microsoft has yet to do.

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