When Microsoft (MSFT) launched the first edition of its Zune media player to compete with Apple’s (APPL) iPod, the company uploaded millions of dollars into pushing a bizarre-o slogan: “Welcome to the Social.”
Something felt a bit off-key the first time they said it. (Come again? The “social“? Isn’t that a bit antiquated for Gen Y? What’s next, “Exchange the finest popular musical compositions with your haberdasher”?). But now that they’ve announced a new version, and — despite rumors of a massive investment deal with Facebook — it seems Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sees the social media landscape through Zune-colored glasses.
Consider Ballmer’s recent comments to the (London) Times Online:
“I think these things [social networks] are going to have some legs, and yet there’s a faddishness, a faddish nature about anything that basically appeals to younger people,” Mr Ballmer told Times Online yesterday.[...] “There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure,” he said.
Mr Ballmer also noted that sites such as Geocities, an online community that was bought for $3 billion by Yahoo! in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, “had most of what Facebook has.”
Meanwhile, on his Scobleizer blog, former Microsoft tech evangelist (and admitted Facebook cheerleader) Robert Scoble hits back:
I’m 42. Hardly young. And Facebook is appealing a lot to people in my social network and age group lately … I guess Ballmer missed that. This is what happens when Microsoft executives don’t get outside of their ivory towers very often. Steve, you really need to go to any tech industry conference and hang out in the hallways. Don’t come to San Francisco, you won’t believe anything you hear here anyway. But go to, say, LeWeb3 in Paris and hear what they say about social networks. You’ll probably hear Bebo. Facebook. And a few others. From even the old folks. Last night I was at a National Geographic event and lots of people were talking about Facebook.
Scoble goes on to insist that Facebook is not only in a different league than Geocities, but that it easily trumps modern competitors like MySpace, Bebo, and… Basically, he’s saying Facebook is the only relevant name in social networking. That’s debatable, but clearly, when it comes to Facebook, Microsoft’s playing hard-to-get with its pocketbook.
Meanwhile, the new Zunes have been well-received. The folks at Engadget are excited, pointing out all the features that could make the Zune a viable threat to the iPod.
But just how social is it, really? According to The New York Times, the wireless sharing feature — one of the Zune’s main selling points — remains limited.
. . . one of the most striking changes had to do with Microsoft’s effort to enhance what had been perhaps the most talked-about feature on the original device: the ability to share music files and other media wirelessly with other Zune owners. Far too few people, however, purchased the player for such sharing to become commonplace, and the function held little appeal because it was crippled by usage rules negotiated with the music industry. Shared songs expired within a few days, even if the recipient did not play them. And a file acquired from one Zune user could not be shared with a third user.Under the new rules, Microsoft said, shared songs would have no expiration date and it would be possible repeatedly to pass along songs sent from one device to another. But a shared file can be played only three times on each Zune.
Still, there are more deals going on which may offer a work-around to the DRM technology that limits Microsoft’s player. The iPod may be safe for now, but Apple’s iTunes Store could get a run for its money.