Early last year, Bill Gates commented on Apple’s success with its “closed” iTunes/iPod system and laid out Microsoft’s very different, “open” strategy for the music-player market:
Apple is doing things the way Apple does – where it’s the Apple hardware and the Apple store. That’s great for them. We’re doing it the Windows way … In the long run, there will be a lot of people making digital music players, and we think that there will be a very different market share with dozens and dozens of companies. And other than Apple, all those player makers are signing up to work inside the Windows PlaysForSure ecosystem.
“Other than Apple and Microsoft,” he should have said. Microsoft’s new Zune player, formally announced yesterday, represents an about-face for the company. Instead of going the “Windows way,” Microsoft is going the “Apple way,” creating a proprietary system combining hardware, software and store.
The Windows way worked for PCs because PCs are general purpose devices that become more attractive as more software and peripheral devices become available. An open architecture encouraged the development of lots of software and devices that expanded what a PC could do in ways that customers valued. They were even willing to put up with crashes and reboots and driver conflicts and all the other annoyances inherent in managing complex, heterogeneous systems. A special-purpose device, like a music or media player, is a different beast altogether. Customers want it to do what it’s supposed to do, and do it really well – and look good while it’s doing it. It’s fine – and in fact valuable – to have a lot of compatible accessories, as long as those accessories don’t mess up the internal workings of the core system itself. That’s been the Apple way with iPod, and now it’s the Microsoft way with Zune.
A lot of people still want to believe that the approach that worked for a general-purpose device will ultimately prevail for a special-purpose device, too. But why should it? They’re two different things, as customers plainly recognize.