While we continue to evaluate the Zune in preparation for our review (we’re taking our time, don’t worry), it’s what’s not in the box that has us wondering if Microsoft’s Zune strategy isn’t a little more complex than we thought.
The problem is that the Zune has all manner of capabilities that aren’t being exploited. Leading up to launch, we wondered to ourselves if Microsoft was going to spring any last minute surprises on us, but they haven’t. Here’s what we believe is coming to the Zune experience over the next several months based on trusted sources and scattered media clips.
First, the points system points to more. What trusted sources tell us is that part of the impetus behind the points system was to make purchasing music easy from within the Zune itself. See, Zune was designed to connect to the Zune Marketplace wirelessly, it just doesn’t do so at the moment. We were admittedly skeptical of such claims, until Bryan Lee, corporate vice president for the entertainment business at Microsoft, decided to get mysterious with the New York Times. Asked if the Zune will ever connect to the Internet, and if it will ever be possible to buy a song that way, Lee responded: "Probably, one day." Not a word more. But coupled with our information on the MS Points system, we feel comfortable predicting that the Zune will eventually connect to the Zune Marketplace, and you’ll be able to buy songs and, likely, other downloads. We’re also relatively sure that this capability will come to today’s Zune, not a later product iteration (of which some are already in the planning stages).
Video sharing is absolutely coming, too. This much was already obvious from the interface, but Steve Ballmer confirmed the plan in an interview with Bloomberg. For now Ballmer says that sharing will probably be used for user-created content, but we believe that Microsoft is working to get video sharing capabilities for commercial video works as well, although this would likely be limited to music video sharing. The big plan, sources tell us, is for Zune to talk to Microsoft’s video portal, Soapbox. The YouTube clone (which has some excellent user interface advantages) will function as mobile destination for grabbing video content, and it sounds exciting. I know I’d love to be able to watch YouTube clips on a mobile device, and YouTube is already trying to make that happen.
Ballmer has also said that a Zune phone is in the works, and we believe that Microsoft is also preparing a larger capacity Zune, as well. What we’re not hearing much about is gaming. Whether or not this means that Microsoft is indeed toying with the idea of getting into the portable gaming market with another device, who knows?. We do have one recommendation for them, if they do: get all your ducks in a row, first. As with the Zune, you’ll be entering a market dominated by someone else (for Zune, that’s Apple, for portable gaming, that’s Nintendo). Anything less than perfect execution will only create more obstacles to overcome. And as a final piece of advice to Microsoft: you know you’re playing catch-up, so why not be transparent and tell your potential customers what your short-term plans are? Video sharing and wireless song purchases are two perfect examples. This stuff should be in the marketing, not in the rumor mill.