When will Apple become more consumer friendly? Not Zune enough.


It’s surprising how quickly the tables can turn in the technology world. Long thought of as one of the most consumer-friendly vendors in the industry, Apple has enjoyed a fanatical and loyal following for more than 20 years now. Meanwhile, Microsoft has long been criticized as being the exact opposite: a money-grubbing company that would rather nickle and dime their customers than release good products. Comparing the latest desktop operating systems from the two companies–OS X 10.4 "Tiger" and Windows Vista–sheds a little light on where these attitudes come from. However, if you take a look at another industry that’s important to both companies–consumer electronics–you’ll see that things aren’t quite as cut and dry as some fanboys would have you believe.

Last month, Apple announced its iPod holiday lineup, effectively setting the stage for yet another fall full of iPod sales. While most folks were excited about the new devices, more than a few malcontents emerged in the days following the announcement. First there were the iPhone early adopters–folks who paid $600 for a device only to have the price drop to $400 mere weeks after they stood in line to buy Cupertino’s latest gizmo. To Apple’s credit, these folks were eventually rewarded for their persistent complaints. However, to some, a $100 gift voucher that could not be used for iTunes content seemed more like an empty gesture.

Then there was the iPod Touch. Upon its release, eager fans quickly discovered that some of the device’s applications had been intentionally crippled, for no apparent reason. Most notable is the calendar–while you can view calendar entries, you can’t create them like you can on the iPhone, even though it’s the exact same application. And why no email on a WiFi device? The clear answer to these questions was that Apple felt it necessary to artificially distinguish the iPod Touch from the iPhone by purposefully removing features from applications–just to make the high-end product more attractive.

Finally, there was the iPhone locking debacle. When Apple threatened to lock iPhones that had been unlocked for use on other GSM networks it made sense–Apple has a contract (not to mention a revenue sharing deal) with AT&T and it’s in Apple’s best interest to see that consumers use the iPhone on the network that it was intended for. But why break third party applications? And why revoke support for anyone who had installed one on their phone? The iPhone is more computer-like that just about any smartphone previously released, so it makes sense that consumers want to add their own programs to the device to expand its functionality. By actively working to keep the iPhone hermetically sealed, Apple is only making it a less attractive device for power-users–you know, the folks who are generally willing to throw down a few hundo for a phone.

On the other side then, we have this week’s Zune launch from Microsoft. While Microsoft is far from perfect (as is the Zune), there’s no doubt that the company did a number of things right this time around. First off, they added WiFi syncing to the Zune and removed the "three days" restriction for over-the-air sharing (it’s now just three plays until a shared song expires). While the issues surrounding this sort of functionality are complex and while vendors probably need the blessing of the recording industry to add such features to their products, customers have been asking for WiFi functionality for years. Apple has a much larger music store and much more caché with the labels–they should have been the first to roll out these innovative features but they dropped the ball. And guess who picked it up?

More importantly, however, Microsoft announced that the old Zune–which is now available for as little as $100 in some places–would be getting all of the features of the new Zune via a software update. The WiFi sharing, the syncing, the new UI, everything. Why would you want to buy a new Zune? Unless you needed more storage capacity, you probably wouldn’t. In this way, you can see that Microsoft stands to lose a number of potential Zune 2 customers by enabling the new features on the old device. However, this gesture will go a long way in cultivating goodwill with consumers and could create a loyal fanbase for the Zune (aside from that tattoo guy). Zune customers might stick with the brand knowing that they won’t have to buy a new device every few years just to get new features. Microsoft is the underdog here–and they know it–but they’re being smart when it comes to marketing the Zune as an iPod alternative. Not only does the Zune have features that the iPod doesn’t, it also comes packaged with a different sort of customer experience.

In the end, the Zune and the iPod are both great devices that do just about the same thing. Admittedly, the difference here is in shades of grey–though a few wrong moves can go a long way in turning a few frustrated consumers into a bona fide backlash. Apple, of all companies should understand the importance of keeping customers happy–after all, it was devoted Apple fans that got the company through those lean years when they were being trounced in the desktop OS wars. The least Apple could do at this point is treat their customers–especially those who have been with the company for years–with the respect that they deserve. When will Apple learn their lesson? Not Zune enough. –Mehan

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