Microsoft’s Zune HD: Not enough? Too late?

Opinion – Microsoft can’t be serious. It took the company two years to come up with a product that now looks can be serious rival to Apple’s iPod Touch. And even if it appears to be a solid product and the best Zune yet, it is the media player Microsoft should have had three years ago. It seems that the Zune HD is way too late to the party, again, and lacks features that may be able to tempt users to switch.

Let’s be honest. The Zune HD could be the best media player by far on the market when it debuts, and Microsoft would still need a miracle to be able to gain visible market share from Apple. The iPod family has become the de facto standard of portable media players. If your spouse or kids ask for a music player for their next birthday, they will ask for a new iPod, not for a Zune or Sansa.

Just the first glimpse at the upcoming Zune HD makes it clear that this is will be the best Zune yet. Apart from its new features, it simply has the looks that make it much more marketable than any other Zune before. There is an Apple-like clean design, an apparently very thin form factor, decent color choices and a large multi-touch screen. No doubt, this upcoming Zune is much more attractive than today’s Zunes.

But besides its visuals, there is very little that we know – so far – about convincing characteristics and features that make you drop your iPod and run to get a Zune HD. Sure, there is a 3.3” OLED display, but will the average consumer know the difference between LCD and OLED? And what about the HD radio? Do we really care? Multi-touch? Just a catch-up with Apple. 720p high-definition video output? Yawn. Microsoft, is there anything about this Zune HD that makes it special, so disruptive to attract the spotlight? I just don’t see it.

As pretty as this Zune HD is, it feels that Microsoft is trying to copy Apple’s strategy to take an existing product, improve it and launch an exaggerated marketing campaign to sell it. There is nothing so compelling that would justify such a campaign at this point. If we look at the content side, Microsoft is way behind Apple.

When the first Zune was announced in November of 2004, we were told that Microsoft would launch a long-term effort to capture market share from Apple. It has already been three years, and Microsoft is making less mistakes – just think about that ugly brown Zune player with its crippled Wi-Fi feature that was launched initially. Microsoft seems to always have the right idea, but there is usually something really silly that makes you scratch your head. The Zune HD will be the best Zune yet, but it is nothing special anymore. It simply is three years too late to market and does not have the wow factor it needs for success.  
Where are the social networking features the target group of this device would look for? A camera? 3G or WiMax that could make it a communication device? VoIP? What about GPS for geo-tagging and navigation? What about a device that is clearly a portable gaming console tied to the Xbox 360 as well?

Sometimes you just wonder whether Microsoft is really serious about competing with Apple.   

Wolfgang Gruener is the founder of TG Daily. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.