Zune: welcome to the gamble

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Or, build it and they will…uh

Later: Slapped together thezunebox.com one night, after coming across a graphic that was absolutely perfect for the topic. Largely says what’s said here, but perhaps worth a look.

Because there hasn’t been enough written about the Zune over the last couple of weeks, I’ll do my part with a quick thought on the campaign that — for better or worse — is defining the Zune: welcome to the social. That tagline probably makes the campaign focus clear enough, but if you’re a little slow you can also check out the twelve video ads that are up on zune.net.

Putting aside the classic Vance Packard-esque “why, yes, Zune users are this young, hip, Xtreme, and/or ethnically diverse” coating that’s been liberally applied to the campaign, it’s all about the social, baby. The heavily-inked turntablists, MCs, and indie rockers in these commercials are clearly making good use of the Zune to share their latest underground creations.

Real pity, then, that Microsoft kneecapped the Zune’s sharing capabilities in order to appease Big Content.1 As a side note, it’s also a pity that the zune.net copywriter apparently didn’t get the branding guidelines, and gave zune.net a voice that clashes painfully with the hipsteriffic look of the campaign. Take this snippet where zune.net explains how sharing is actually supposed to be used:

Another friend gets the hilarious podcast your kid brother made at school, plus that song you just downloaded from the Zune Marketplace and can’t get out of your head. And hey, lookee here2 , your friend wants to send you something that you might like and buy, too.

Ouch. On the plus side, since I’m certain that there was alternate copy written for the site in response to someone’s request to “give it an urban edge…make it clear to consumers that the Zune is all about keeping it real,” we certainly ended up with the lesser of two evils.

But back to the point: the big gamble that I see is that the campaign is built around a “feature” that’s totally outside of Microsoft’s control. Even if Microsoft hadn’t decided to go with a painfully RIAA-friendly definition of “sharing your music,” the campaign isn’t about the Zune’s wifi capability as such, it’s about the Zune Community…whatever that may turn out to be.

As the creators of countless social bookmarking sites, wikis, and online communities will tell you, it’s a lot harder than you might think to create a community, and the Zune has an even tougher row to hoe because it’s depending on users to find one another without any central guidance. Zunesters must spontaneously create micro-communities that blossom and then crumble into nothing in a matter of minutes or hours, leaving nothing to mark their passing.

It may be that Microsoft is hoping that pre-existing communities will adopt the Zune in order to take advantage of the social, but that’s a pretty big gamble, too: the phrase “don’t worry about it, dude, just burn me a copy and bring it with you tomorrow night” could pretty easily rip apart the fabric of the social.

I’m really surprised that Microsoft didn’t do more to prime the pump on this. Give Zunes away to every street-level music fiend they could find. Pay people to take Zunes to public places and share their little hearts out. Build a “Zunebox” (think jukebox) that allows Zune users to pull down songs and then install one in every Starbucks, Borders Music, and Best Buy in key markets.

Anything at all, really, to give Zunesters as many opportunities as possible to think “damn this is cool” while they grab a new track out of the ether…anything to minimize the number of times that people look for the social only to get: No nearby Zune devices found, or nearby devices have wireless turned off.

welcome to the notes
All shared music — even, say, that demo track that your band just recorded and is trying to pass around — “expires” after three plays or three days, and songs received via sharing can’t be passed along to anyone else.

Could someone under 35 please drop me a note to confirm that lookee here is, in fact, what you kids today are saying? I’d hate to sound like a goober if I start casually dropping it into conversation.