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The Zune HD: Another Bullet Point Design from Microsoft

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.