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A Painted Ship Upon A Painted Ocean

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20:05  * humph cannot understand why anyone is buying zune
20:05 <@humph> I'm scrolling through engadget and can't believe what I'm seeing
20:05 < mhoye> oh, god, the zune.
20:05 < mhoye> My dad has a story whose details I can barely remember.
20:05 <@humph> hit me

… about a sea captain (Admiral Nelson maybe?) and a sailor who, in the midst of some ship-to-ship battle shows tremendous strength and courage in securing an untethered cannon (this is where the expression “loose cannon” comes from, incidentally) lashing it to the ship’s rolling deck, and saving his shipmates. So after the battle the Admiral addresses the crew, commending the sailor for his bravery under fire, and then immediately orders the sailor keelhauled. Because, the Admiral says, if he’d done his job when he was supposed to the ship would never have been in danger and he would never have had to go to those heroic lengths in the first place.

I think Steve Ballmer needs to have this precise discussion with whoever is in charge of Microsoft’s brand management.

A couple of weeks ago, I said that “…unless Windows Mobile 7 is at least as good as iPhone OS 1, then the walled-garden fuck-you-and-your-freedom model wins. Which makes me really sad, because the alternatives to the Microsoft approach right now are way, way worse”, but that argument has been made irrelevant by the release of the new Zune HD, and so has Windows Mobile.

So, funny little nerd history lesson.

A couple of years ago Microsoft was growing this nice little ecosystem of music players and digital content providers under the aegis of the “PlaysForSure” brand. Sure, there was some DRM involved and it didn’t work exactly right all the time but it was getting better pretty quickly. And at a time when there were a bunch of incompatible implementations of a bunch of different sound file formats (and even MP3 didn’t really work right all the time) they were starting to build up a respectable stable of music vendors and players from a bunch of different OEMs that all said “PlaysForSure” on the box and promised some portability and interoperability to the customer.

And then they built the first Zune and the Zune Marketplace, and word got out that Microsoft’s new flagship media players wouldn’t play PlaysForSure content at all. And that whatever else Microsoft was saying publicly they had decided internally (and months previously) that PFS just wasn’t good enough for them.

And every last person and company who’d bought into PFS looked at that and said, wait, what? You’re doing what with the who, now? And in a few months that whole space was completely abandoned. All the music vendors, all the OEMs who’d been building and marketing PFS devices, all that time and effort and goodwill got kicked into a empty corner and set on fire.

Fast-forward to today, and all that burned karma has amounted to just about nothing. The Zune did cartoonishly poorly and iPods still dominate. But the media-player-only device is clearly on the way out, and cellphones are in ascendance. Windows Mobile 6.5, first demonstrated in February, is coming out in early October. Windows Mobile 7, so very late and so very not-looking-that-interesting-anyway is due early next year. All the other Zunes have been discontinued, and Microsoft has released one Zune to rule them all; their new flagship media player, the Zune HD.

Now with Google’s free Android eating their lunch over at HTC, with Microsoft desperate to get WinMo 6.5 and 7 out the door, their showcase portable device doesn’t run Windows Mobile at all. It runs some heavily modified, closed WinMo derivative with no dev tools, that you can’t make or sell apps for, that can’t leverage or even reuse any part of the existing WinMo software base and that (honestly, oh my fucking god) plays fullscreen commercials before running the free applications they deign to give you at all.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

For real, in the face of all the evidence and options available in this modern world, somebody in Microsoft’s management thinks that the answer to “how can we turn our customers into a revenue stream” is “we should charge them a big hunk of money for the device, and then give them a crappy experience for free.”

I know that Microsoft’s entertainment division is violently hemorrhaging cash, but I don’t think that anyone there realizes how much momentum and mindshare they’re bleeding out of the rest of their company. Nobody who can do anything about it, anyway. But for the sake of an open market and an open software ecosystem, I hope that somebody there wakes up to how much else that their entertainment division is really costing them, how egregiously it undermines some of their most important projects. Somebody who has the rank and stones to do something about it which, sadly, is just one guy who’s not really technically or vision-inclined.

Because the top four or five levels of that department’s management need to be commended for their heroism, and then keelhauled.

2 Comments | Skip to comment form

  1. Mike Kozlowski

    Microsoft’s mobile strategy (sic) is just embarrassing right now. Dudes, you are being out-executed by OPEN SOURCE. And Palm. And fucking RIM.

    (This is ironically posted from my Winmo phone…)

  2. mhoye

    It’s bad, yeah. They really don’t have one, and haven’t for years.