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TG Daily Top-10: Technology disappointments of 2006

#5 Microsoft Zune

No one saw Zune coming. And especially not in brown.

If you were given the task to define the feature set and design of a device that can beat Apple's iPod, what would it be? I'm sure that many of you could name at least two or three shortcomings of the iPod right away. It's a great product, but it has weaknesses that can be exploited.

When we first heard of the Zune and rumors of the feature set began to fly, it was easy to see that Microsoft is serious about tackling Apple's market leadership. First, Microsoft apparently spent some time on finding a real product name - "Zune" sounds much better than T10 or K5. And then there was Wi-Fi - a killer feature that could have knocked out the iPod all by itself.

"Could" is the keyword here, because, obviously, it does not. Microsoft has crippled the Zune's wireless networking functionality to make it nearly useless. You can share a song via Wi-Fi with the same user only three times, after that, that user has to buy it. Yes, I understand that sharing a song more often would come dangerously close to the definition of copyright violation, but in its current form, Zune Wi-Fi is more of a sales promotion tool than a technology that enables social networking. There must be more in Wi-Fi than what Zune does with it, right?

Microsoft's Zune

For a first shot, I admit, Zune is a decent try. The display is impressive and the software and GUI represents what you would expect from a company that has virtually unlimited development resources. There are even those little features that make such a device attractive, for example the screen that shifts from portrait into landscape mode, if you hold the Zune horizontally.

But we are talking about a device that is positioned as iPod killer and that has been developed by a multi-billion dollar company, not a cash-strapped startup. Could we have expected more from a company with such resources? Yes. The specs of Zune are average at best and the design is not a keeper. Looks are always a matter of taste, but the Zune does not look special and jeez, guys, who came up with the idea of a brown MP3 player?

Sales of of Zune were decent initially, but quickly dropped from the best seller ranks. Microsoft said that it thinks it can sell about 1 million Zunes until June 2007 and considers that potential as "pretty awesome." For comparison, the iPod needed almost two years to reach that goal.

I agree, a million is not bad. But come on, this is Microsoft and 30,000 stores are selling the player. It's easy to overlook that the market of 2006 is different from the market of 2001, when MP3 players were a niche product. Microsoft, you could have sold ten million units in half a year, if you had opted for more cutting edge hardware, more Wi-Fi functionality and a prettier design. Remember, Apple sells nearly ten million iPods in three months.

No doubt, Zune was an early Christmas present for Apple. A million Zunes are a wake-up call for Apple, but they won't dent the iPod's market dominance in the immediate future.