Daniel Eran Dilger
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Letters from Microsoft: An Employee Tosses His Zune

Zune HD

Daniel Eran Dilger

Windows Enthusiasts like to paint me as biased against the Zune because I didn’t get a free gift basket from Microsoft and then turn around with a CNET-style gushing review of the me-too player that manages to consistently slink a year or two behind Apple. But what does one of Microsoft’s own developers think of the device? Here’s an independent report from a person deep inside the Zune maker.
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The developer, whom I’ll call “Mike Rosoft,” volunteered the following experience with the Zune in an email: “[some months after being hired] … I did the dutiful thing and bought a Zune 120 gig, thinking it would be better than the 80g iPod I had before. I saw some plusses and minuses to the software interface and the potential of the social and Zune pass aspects (good ideas, typically flawed execution) but I didn’t give much thought to the actual audio quality.

”I figured I’m using a lossless codec, it’ll be true CD quality, I have some nice Creative Aurvana earbuds, it should sound pretty good. But I have pretty sensitive hearing, and over a long time I noticed that I wasn’t enjoying the music as much when I played it on the Zune. It didn’t sound as good as I expected it to, and I was starting to think it was a function of stress and depression, but that wasn’t it.

“Because after I got the iPhone I spent a day transcoding all the music from my collection that I expected to want to listen to from the original Apple lossless files to 256 Kbps AAC (standard iTunes Plus preset). It was only slightly involved. I’d right-click a bunch of songs, convert to AAC, and then with smart playlists and sorting on various columns, I’d drag the converted ones to my iMac with file sharing, import them to iTunes (copying them to the right directories and stripping the ” 1“ added to the name to avoid a collision with the original lossless version with the same extension) and finally deleting the transcoded version from the original PC. I lost my play counts and star ratings, but I’m fine with that.

Cutting Corners on Quality.

”After syncing the first batch and plugging in the same Aurvana earbuds, I almost instantly realized that i’d been robbed, by the Zune, because the AAC version sounded amazingly good, obviously better than the uncompressed version on the Zune. So now my whole music collection takes up like 25 gigs of flash and sounds better than I had ever expected.

“I believe they either fucked up the DAC or the analog circuit pathways on the Zune and lost like 10dB or more of signal to noise. I think the stereo channels might be leaking into each other also. It just sounded muddy and I’d been using it all this time, not just with the earbuds but in my commute to work every day in the car.

”BTW, I think I could perhaps tell the difference between AAC and lossless after very carefully listening to each version, but the differences would be so subtle as to be meaningless in terms of enjoyability. Whatever they screwed up in the Zune to make the lossless version sound so flat and dead was much worse.

“Music is a very important part of my life and Microsoft robbed me of a portion of that enjoyment through typical corner cutting and short-sightedness. I’ve decided I’m going to find a nice grassy space this weekend and get my roommate to film me smashing up the Zune with a giant pipe wrench, a la the scene from Office Space where they smash up the printer. Should be a YouTube hit, especially with the story of why I’m doing it.

The Great Exodus of Microsoft’s Talent.

”Did I mention to you that after the layoffs, people have been resigning right and left? Always the same story, going to do something else, not sure what, but something else. Two weeks notice, see ya. I’ll be doing the same tomorrow morning along with a friend who’s quitting for the same reasons. In fact, he’s been frustrated longer than me, probably because I was blaming myself and not the real problem of the toxic work environment.

“We can’t figure out: how can you make a great product with shifty tools, and how can you make great, or even acceptable, tools on top of a shifty platform? You can’t ratchet up the quality, certainly not when you haven’t been allotted sufficient time to do so. You can only try to prevent the quality of everything from dropping further into mediocrity.”

Rosoft hasn’t yet posted his video or his story, but when he does I’ll link to it.

Up next: if you think Microsoft’s cutting corners on the Zune in the manner of the Xbox 360 is the worst example of the company’s failing to learn from its previous mistakes, get ready for a big surprise. Because Microsoft is preparing to replicate one of the biggest, most uncontroversial blunders of the recent decade in its misguided efforts to imitate Apple.

Guess what iceberg Balmer’s delirious company is going to aim towards for its next Titanic disaster! (Hint: it’s a far larger mistake than the whole ‘two years late iPod touch clone + Zune HD software problem’ I discussed in the last article.)

Why Can’t Microsoft Develop Software for Zune HD?

iPod vs Zune: A Buyer’s Guide – 2006
Winter 2007 Buyer’s Guide: Microsoft Zune 8 vs iPod Nano
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing – 2007
Zune Sales Still In the Toilet – 2008

  • tundraboy

    Re Stores as branding strategies, a couple of things:

    1. The Sony and Nike stores are not nearly as many as the Apple stores. They are in high visibility locations in a few prominent cities.

    2. The other stores mentioned are for high-end high fashion outfits: Gucci, Prada, etc. Really now, the name ‘Microsoft’ doesn’t exactly fit in that roster.

    I have no idea what a Microsoft store can offer that is compelling enough to get enough people to go there and buy it at list price. Microsoft gurus is a disaster waiting to happen, I can already see customers walking away in disgust after the guru tells them “it’s a hardware issue, you should talk with your PC’s manufacturer”. And even if it is a software issue, are they prepared to offer free support to OEM installs of Windows? Hah!

  • twilightmoon

    @ gus2000

    Pure poetry. Great post.

  • John E

    @ tundraboy – well you put your finger on the key issue – will the MS gurus provide really good free tech support or not? if they do, the MS stores will be a hit because windows users need that so badly. if not, another MS flop. nothing else matters nearly as much. otherwise good software demos would be a plus. i wish Apple had dedicated demo setups at its stores for stuff like Bento or MobileMe so you could focus on it with someone to help explain. but they just have one, for AppleTV. room for improvement there.

  • Shovel Man

    What absolute drivel this article is.

    I realize this comment is a couple weeks after the original posting, but I could not help myself.

    The author of this article should find a new hobby that isn’t centered around his hate for a corporation. A BUSINESS. Who devotes such a large portion of their life to posting libelous comments about a multinational software corporation? Seriously!

    Microsoft makes a good product for millions of people. I am sorry that your world views, and seemingly those of your “readers” are so tainted that you derive joy from the thought of people losing jobs simply because the factors leading to it would cause harm to Microsoft as a whole. It’s really quite sad.

    I weep for humanity.

    [Rather than weep, why not actually point out what you thought was “libelous” about publishing comments made by a Microsoft employee? Your comment says nothing apart from expressing childish frustration. – Dan]