Zune Beats iPod: How Apple Can Learn from Microsoft’s Success

Zune launched this week and, as predicted, it easily jumped to the number one spot in one of the most critical market metrics. How can this happen? How can a company known for practices that should dominate this metric fall so far behind its Redmond rival?

Sometimes it’s about focus and commitment and a never ending desire to maximize critical metrics like third party studies. Sometimes it about executive integrity and the ability to present a product in the most favorable light in the face of all information to the contrary to overcome all objections in getting a product to market that can get a win in this way. And sometimes it is about being so focused on what executive management wants to see that everything else is blocked out.

Zune Wins iPod Loses

Zune generated more negative press during its launch than any iPod, including the first crippled Shuffle, has ever done. It got so bad earlier this week that folks are getting excited about the fact that it wouldn’t  even work with Vista right now even though Vista is only in limited corporate release to customers who would avoid anything like Zune (or iTunes) like the plague.

If reports are correct Zune also has more unsold inventory sitting in stores than Apple has ever had; customers evidently didn’t understand that “Brown” was cool. I’m guessing they didn’t see the survey saying that Brown was the hot new color.

Zune goes down in history as being the latest in a string of products from Microsoft that fail to meet market expectations, suggesting a competence in failure that is unmatched in the technology segment.  Recall Mira the wireless display, or WebTV, or the Microsoft Phone, the Microsoft USB Speakers, and their Bluetooth Keyboards and Mice. Some did so poorly they are the stuff of legend and Apple simply can’t seem to compete but they could learn to.

How Apple Could Learn to Succeed at Failure

To have this kind of success at failure you have to work at it, you can’t just walk in and screw up to this level it takes concerted effort.

Rule 1: Avoid what you don’t want to do. For Zune Microsoft did a really nice job on the software, channel, and revenue model. They didn’t want to really focus on the hardware and this created a situation where the product could get funded (looked really good on paper) but actually had no chance to be successful in a market that was hardware focused.

Rule 2: Do CYA analysis. Executives like to see numbers and generally won’t fund a project that looks like it will fail so your strategy has to include studies that support the possibility of success.  This is actually easier than you think because most executives have not studied this area and don’t know the questions to ask. Some nice bar and pie charts typically do the trick and you can always do the “emperor has no clothes” thing and suggest that their smart peers understand the study implying that only stupid people would question it.

Rule 3: Play the Demographic card. Executives in most firms don’t understand kids, hell kids don’t often understand kids, and simply saying that kids do stupid things (like wearing their pants below their butts) means that they will also buy stupid things. Adults seem to connect disconnected things to each other easily so draw parallels between an unattractive products to unattractive dressing behavior.

Rule 4: Don’t Listen. For most of the products listed, there were large numbers of people who said, early on, that they wouldn’t work, were unfinished, or otherwise unappealing to the current market. In a way they are just validating your success at failing so why listen to them? Use their comments as private validation that your strategy to fail spectacularly is on schedule and well down its chosen path.

Where Apple Gets it Wrong

For some reason Steve Jobs and his team simply doesn’t get this. They tend to block marginal products and spend whatever time is necessary to create music players that people want to buy in large numbers.   There are signs they are learning though. The first Shuffle, the ROKR, their handling of the RSS problem.  These are things that indicate what may be a growing trend to eventually dominate Microsoft in their quest to create spectacular products that go down in the record books as legendary disasters.

Apple isn’t there yet but if they work at it really hard I think they can find a way, some day, to release a product with the same success as Zune. I just hope I’m not around to see it.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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