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

  • http://jonnytilney.com Jon T

    This’ll be interesting! Can’t wait.

    I’ve used the word ‘mediocrity’ to describe Microsoft since 2000, but actually it understates what and who they are. There is something pervasively insidious about that business. There is light at the end of the tunnel in the fight against it.

  • wings

    Let me guess… the mPhone.

  • Per

    If you enjoyed reading this, I suggest you read “Microserfs” by Douglas Coupland. It’s about a group of Microsofties who trade the their lives in Redmond for Silicon Valley in the mid ’90s. It’s not mainly about tech stuff, it’s more about dysfunctional people and families but setting is great and well-captured.

  • Urs W. Keller

    Although this is only anecdotal evidence, it’s nevertheless interesting, especially the second part about the “toxic work environment”. The hemorrhaging of talent has an incredibly destructive long-term effect on the organization: The quality of your pool for selecting leaders (at all levels) deteriorates, creating people in charge that are less qualified, again leading to further resignations.

    But Monkey Boy Ballmer will leave the company before all that really becomes evident …

  • http://www.jeffself.net jeffself

    I know the big blunder to come. The Microsoft retail stores. People are going to be lining up for days just to come in and look at a box of Microsoft Office!

  • enzos

    New Zune: WOW.. it’s uglier than a hat-full of arseholes!

    Mike writes well. An educated geek. His comments about lossless v 256 kbsp seem spot on to my ears as well. In fact the old standard, 128 kbps AAC, is quite hard to distinguish from lossless.

  • CindyTworek

    The MS employee’s narrative seemed to suggest that he/she was using Apple lossless files on the Zune, and I was curious if The Powers that Be at MS would actually allow that, so I looked up the Zune 120HD model on Amazon to check it’s specs and found that it says this:

    “Item Under Review
    While this item is available from other marketplace sellers on this page, it is not currently offered by Amazon.com because customers have told us there may be something wrong with our inventory of the item, the way we are shipping it, or the way it’s described here. (Thanks for the tip!)”

    This was for the Black 120 gig version: http://www.amazon.com/Zune-120-Video-Player-Black/dp/B001EQ0HAW

    Over a year of practice and they still can’t make the old ones right? Sad…

    Knowing is Half the Battle: http://bit.ly/atnv5

  • 605dave

    My bet is you’re talking about the new Microsoft stores. What a disaster that is going to be.

  • nine9nin

    Microsoft next Titanic disaster = Microsoft stores?

  • Tardis

    Daniel,

    Something is missing from this report. As I read it, “Mike Rosoft” transferred his music from his iTunes Library to his Zune without doing any conversion, and it sounded “muddy”. Then he got an iPhone, converted his music via a multi-stage “transcoding” process from iTunes to his iPhone and found it sounded better than his Zune.

    I can understand that you might want to “transcode” the files from your iTunes Library before putting them on a Zune, but I wasn’t aware of any need to do this between an iTunes Library and an iPhone.

    Is there some part of Mr. Rosoft’s explanation you have missed out?

  • gesso

    Just to add the obvious…

    Every company, even Apple, has unhappy or dysfunctional individual sand groups. An interesting article, but just because 1 or 2 engineers state something about their company, does not make it true. I am just pointing out that I have far too often heard of huge conjectures made from a micro sample size.

    Not suggesting that Dan is doing this in the article. Just wished to state that this experience is isolated ( I have no idea what the general vibe is at MS ).

  • CindyTworek

    Tardis: He went from using a 120GB hard drive based player to an iPhone (doesn’t say the capacity, but obviously 32GB max if this was a relatively recent experience, more likely 16GB). Lossless probably wasn’t practical on the iPhone, so he/she went for AAC @256kbs (I’m a bit confused as to the Apple Lossless reference, since I don’t think the Zune plays it [see my earlier post- #6], but I think he must have meant Windows lossless (WMA) which iTunes on Windows will read and convert).

  • TheMacAdvocate

    Future train wreck? It’s a toss up between Pink and their “retail” presence. I’m personally going with the latter on account of its potential to be one of the most epic fails for M$ ever. Between the capital drain and the damage of putting consumers in closer contact with their offerings, they’re going to piss off a whole lot of “partners”. Can’t wait to see Daniel’s take.

  • JohnWatkins

    @Tardis, What’s missing? Presumably he coded his music to WMA lossless, since that’s the only lossless format the Zune plays (I believe.) He would have done that either from the CDs or from Apple lossless files.
    If the new files sounded good played from the computer, the only questions is “why can’t the Zune play supported files properly.”

    @gesso, True enough. But this is not just a case of problem (or mistreated) employees, Its a problem product. If you don’t get that, perhaps you would be a good fit at MS. They should have a few openings soon ;-)

  • JohnWatkins

    The immediate future train wreck is the “Microsoft Store” with its “Microsoft Gurus” and its “Microsoft Theater” etc. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s the stupidest form of strategic planning. Dig hole, pour in money. Fortunately for MS, if someone gets smart they can back out of this one with reletively minor (monetary) damage.
    Bigger train wrecks loom in the distance. Not as immediate, but structurally inevitable and more catastrophic. Boom!

  • tinytim09

    Why is everyone hoping for the Microsoft stores to fail?
    I can’t wait to see if there will be a new iPod Touch this year and will definently compare it against the Zune HD.

  • Tardis

    @JohnWatkins:

    Please excuse my ignorance, I have not experienced the Zune or file transcoding between iTunes and WMA lossless. If you are correct, “Mike” transcoded his iTunes music to WMA lossless to load onto his Zune. Then, when Microsoft fired him, he got an iPhone and converted his music via a multi-stage “transcoding” process from iTunes to his iPhone and found it sounded better than his Zune.

    I still don’t understand this. My music didn’t need any transcoding to get from my iTunes library to my iPhone.

  • http://jonnytilney.com Jon T

    “Why is everyone hoping for the Microsoft stores to fail?”

    “Hoping”? What are you talking about. There’s no need to waste hope, it’ll happen without any effort or hope from anyone…

  • gus2000

    Do you hear that, Mr. Ballmer? That is the sound of inevitability. That is the sound of your epic fail. Goodbye, Mr. Ballmer.

    We need not hold out hope for the inevitable. We are merely basking in das schadenfreude of yet another ill-conceived instance of “me-too innovation” by Microcopy.

    “…’PC Load Letter’? What the f#@k does that mean?!??”

  • tinytim09

    Well I hope the stores are a success.

  • gesso

    @ JohnWatkins
    There are really 2 issues here:

    a) a perceived product problem ( Is this behavior confirmed? Was he misusing the product? Is it endemic? Is it all versions of Zune or just a specific one? Did this happen to all Zunes of this type, or just his? Does this happen to all types of music, or just a specific type? )

    b) An employee’s frustration with his company and his perception to their issues.

    I have no idea if a) is true. All I was pointing out is that the b) issue may or may not be true, but a sample size of 1 in a large engineering company is more than skewed. I would rather make judgements on fact than innuendo. Roughly Drafted is a fine site in that it normally does deal with opinions based on data, not just blowing air.

    I am no fan of Microsoft, but this article was a cute isolated perspective piece and an enjoyable read if take for what it is. Just pointing out that extrapolating on this one perspective is a dubious affair that can lead to fan boyism.

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    20tinytim09:

    It’s not that anyone is “hoping” the stores will fail, it will just be fun to watch Microsoft, the 800lb gorilla, trying to walk in Apple’s high heels. Down glass steps. At the big Redmond beast’s coming out party. Again.

    Actually, I’m hoping that Microsoft will do more than just open up two stores and call it quits. I hope the company starts a massive retail effort and opens at least 50 stores nationwide, hiring and training a lot of people, and then offering lots of clearance products. The US could use another stimulus package, especially its battered malls.

    But the next article isn’t about retail.

  • Michael

    @Tardis:

    It’s quite simple… He as three versions of the files… Apple Lossless (iPod/iTunes), WMA Lossless (Zune), AAC 256 (iPhone).

    I don’t think there was a two stage transcoding process. He took his Apple Lossless files and transcoded them down to AAC256.

    Or it sounds as if he transferred all his WMA Lossless from his PC to his iMac, Converted them to Apple Lossless, and then copied and transcoded those to AAC256.

    The point of that is the iPhone has limited storage compared to the iPod and Zune, so in order to get more songs onto it, his transcoded them from the lossless format to AAC256.

  • bartfat

    is it about windows 7? b/c obviously windows 7 has followed in vista’s footsteps trying to copy the mac interface. dashboard cloned as sidebar, not simply widgets on the desktop, the “dock” is cloned as a bunch of icons on a taskbar and a screenshot of the windows that application uses in a tiny subset of the screen popping up, the “performance” of windows 7 that is supposedly better than “any windows to date”, the translucent windows and that aero interface, well, the list goes on.

    But of course, none of this whether it is crappy or not will matter in the end. Because whether the mac people like it or not, windows will still sell plenty of copies.. it just depends on how quickly the machines in the field get upgraded. That, and whether apple or linux (maybe ubuntu) can try to snatch some (more) market share away microsoft while windows 7 turns out to be a slightly faster vista with some UI tweaks. And I’d wager roughly about the same price as XP was retailing for back in 2002, since they proved they couldn’t hike prices with Vista for no good reason.

  • Raymond

    @20tinytim09

    Microsoft’s stores don’t even need to fail to be a disaster. The problem for MS is that they live and die by their OEMs. Opening retail stores only serves to create a two tiered system of favored OEMs that get space in the stores and those that don’t.

  • http://www.kennedybrandt.com Homeworld

    “…the real problem of the toxic work environment” hits the nail right on the head. I served a 5+ year sentence at Microsoft from 1999 to 2004, and nowhere else have I seen such an oppressive, negative, and downright hateful work environment. There’s no better word than toxic for the atmosphere at Redmond, but it can take years — especially for the poor saps who get sucked in straight out of college — to realize how sick the company is.

  • JohnWatkins

    @tinytim09
    Although I am “hoping for failure” it’s just because their hubris is so great. As I said,
    “Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s the stupidest form of strategic planning.”
    Simply put, the stores will be a disaster because they are trying to copy success without paying any attention to who they are, what they sell, and how best to do it. Its like a student who hopes to ace the test by dressing nicely instead of studying. The stores may be nice places for Windows lovers to go and see stuff, but it cannot translate into success for Microsoft.

  • JohnWatkins

    @Tardis
    Michael (comment #23) explained it well (maybe he’s “Mike!”)
    I’m assuming when he created the WMA Lossless files he checked them for quality on his computer before transcoding all his files. That implies that it was the Zune that was the problem.

  • JohnWatkins

    @gesso
    Yeah, very true. Before we can call this news it should be reproduced. Is it the hardware? the software? Thing is I could really care less (but caring less would be too much trouble for me) so someone who has a Zune will have to do it. (Fact is a consistent, serious error would probably have been discovered by one of the other few dozen Zune users by now.)
    If it’s not reproducible perhaps Mike is just projecting on an employer he has come to loath (or perhaps it is an intermittent production problem) again, I hate to say it, but it’s Zune, I don’t plan on buying one and I don’t give a rip (call me apathetic but truthful.)

  • Raymond

    Dan, a pleasure as always to read your articles. Your next article not about Microsoft’s retail effort, I like many other had thought that would be it? Well I’m sure you’ll comment on that train wreck soon enough. Since a few people are making guesses about the subject of your next article, I’ll throw my hat into the ring as well. I think Windows 7 is too obvious, though I could be wrong. My bet’s going to be on Microsoft’s Skymarket for Windows Mobile. It’s the most notable other effort from MS that has little thought behind it other than a blind scramble to copy Apple.

  • JohnWatkins

    BTW,
    “it will just be fun to watch Microsoft, the 800lb gorilla, trying to walk in Apple’s high heels. Down glass steps.”
    That’s funny!

  • beanie

    So what iPod 80GB did the guy have? It would be funny if the guy had an iPod Classic 80GB 6th Generation with a Cirrus DAC. Zunes use Wolfson DAC as does other models of iPod. Most consider Wolfson DAC to sound better.

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  • gus2000

    The DAC is important, no doubt, but there’s still a whole lotta analog that happens between the DAC and your eardrums.

    I would enjoy seeing a proper audio quality comparison of DMP’s, but most true audiophiles won’t even use digital, let alone compressed (*gasp*!) digital. They consider all MP3 players to be in the same class of “populist crap”. (And you thought Apple owners were elitist, lol)

  • John E

    hey guys, the new MS stores will be a big success, if success is defined as having lots of visitors. because they will be lined up outside the door everyday with people waiting to talk with the “gurus” to get their millions of messed up PC’s working (if it’s free like the Apple Store, compared to the Best Buy Geek Squad which costs).

    unlike the Apple stores, actual retail sales can’t be the goal. MS can’t offer discount prices (except for in-Store-only “specials” – that is, sales. expect to see the major OEM’s always having some exclusive in-store specials on selected products going.), so there is no advantage otherwise compared to shopping on line in your home/office. but the stores will be good for product demos. and free shows like that are always popular.

    the XBox will either have its own room or be very limited in display. nothing turns off adult shoppers faster than a glob of gamer zombies blowing things up for hours (the Playstation stores are deathly).

    Apple’s stores are money makers, so Apple has a lot of them and is still expanding. MS’ stores will be loss leaders. so their number will always be more limited. but a flop? no.

  • John E

    well, the upcoming WinMobile 6.5 release is certain to be an utter flop. it’s truly putting lipstick on the WinMo 6.1 pig. but since it’s just an interim release pending the supposedly fully revamped WinMobile 7 next year, i don’t think it rises to the level of titanic fiasco DED is going to write about next. and as to WinMo 7 itself, not enough is known about it to declare it a fiasco – yet.

    must be something else.

  • John E

    how about Azure? MS’ effort to knock-off MobileMe and Google stuff, combining MyPhone and all those “Sky” things they offer that no one can figure out.

  • jkundert

    I’ll guess Windows 7: a repeat of the disasterous Windows Vista….!

  • CindyTworek

    Here’s a screen grab of the Amazon page for the Black Zune 120 HD that I pointed out in my earlier post (#7), in case Amazon changes it: http://yfrog.com/0u87jlj
    It strikes me as epic fail when Amazon stops selling a product because of too many complaints…

    Knowing is Half the Battle: http://bit.ly/atnv5

  • yasmar

    I would bet most of the Microsoft developers are from the Midwest.

  • roebeet

    The only way to truly compare audio quality between two devices is with the exact same source files – that wasn’t the case, here. He mentions ALAC to AAC 256K for his iPhone setup (which would certainly create high quality lossless files) but never mentioned how he transcoded on the Zune, other than saying it was “uncompressed”.

    Instead of taking this at face value, I would recommend a more objective audio test between the two devices, before passing judgment.

  • JohnWatkins

    “I would bet most of the Microsoft developers are from the Midwest.”
    Perhaps they’re from (Middle America) Madison WI, home of “The Progressive” magazine. Those Luddites!

  • twilightmoon

    “most true audiophiles won’t even use digital, let alone compressed (*gasp*!) digital. They consider all MP3 players to be in the same class of “populist crap”

    Do they carry a concert piano with them to work out at the gym?

  • roebeet

    Audiophiles don’t mind digital at all, as long as it’s done right. SACD, for example, or lossless audio with a decent DAP / headphone amp / good headphones. In the iPod arena, using the line-out with a headphone amp noticeably improves the SQ.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~daguy daGUY

    @John E: “Apple’s stores are money makers, so Apple has a lot of them and is still expanding. MS’ stores will be loss leaders. so their number will always be more limited. but a flop? no.”

    But isn’t the whole point of a retail store to sell products? If a retail store is going to cost more to run than what it makes up for in sales, how could you NOT call that a flop?

    MS has even said themselves that their stores will be more about the “experience” and brand image than actually selling products. That just seems backwards to me. Apple’s stores are certainly about experience and branding as well, but Apple uses that to then SELL high-margin products that more than make up the cost of keeping the stores running. They’re not raking in cash JUST because the stores are cool! But yet that seems to be MS’ approach.

  • tundraboy

    Guys, here you go again ragging on Steve Ballmer’s qualifications to be MS CEO. Might I remind you that he was Bill Gates’ college buddy? That makes him eminently qualified to be CEO, more qualified than anyone else!

  • John E

    @daguy – nope, things have changed. there is a whole new wave of “branding” retail stores all over the world. that are intentionally opened as marketing tools, not to actually make a profit selling stuff at retail list prices. many are money losers on their own – loss leaders. it is all those high-end-chains you see in the major city shopping districts like Union Square here in SF and wealthy suburb malls (and las vegas). Gucci, Prada, and so on. the SonyStyle stores are a tech version of this (there is a longer story there, part of the overall Sony fiasco). it’s about the brand image. only Apple has been able to make a lot of money with stores at the same time as its “branding.” its the exception. MS stores are more the rule.

  • JohnWatkins

    @daGUY
    “But isn’t the whole point of a retail store to sell products?”
    Not if it’s a flagship or a brand enhancer — a “trophy store” if you will. Most people think the original Apple store opened in 2001. Actually that was the first ‘retail store.’ The first Apple store was at 1 infinite loop and was probably not particularly profitable. It existed as a company store for employees to buy discounted products and as a beacon to visitors at Apple headquarters. The store, like much of Apple headquarters, took its design queues more from the MOMA than from a retail or office space. Products in the store were more “on exhibit” than they were displayed for purchase. I’m not sure when Apple headquarters was built, but I believe it was around 1980.

    I would argue that it was one of the most influential retail spaces ever conceived. The design language of the store influenced some of the most highly respected retailers in the world including Crate & Barrel, Target, Banana Republic, etc. I contend it was a source of inspiration (possibly indirect) for retail thinkers and consultants as well (ie Paco Underhill.) And this is all before Apple even expanded into retail (it was just a company store.) I even think the Apple retail store strongly influenced the design of Apple’s and others company’s retail web sites (white background, image with drop shadow, simple swiss style type, etc.)

    I suspect the Apple company store strongly influenced many “trophy stores” that spang up in the 1990’s that didn’t necessarily make money, butwere built to influence, engage, or just catch the eye of customers. Look at the Michigan Avenue Miracle Mile in Chicago — Nike store, Sony store, Disney store, I can’t even think of all the ones that have come and gone. Basically they all existed just to catch the eyeballs of Chicago tourists from all over the country and the world.

    In any case, Apple used the the company store (of course it was updated along the way) as the template for the Apple stores we see today, the first of which was opened in 2001, only 8 years ago.

    What is unique about Apple’s foray into retail stores is that they actually make a ton of money, they are profitable, extremely profitable. That’s what Microsoft will be unable to duplicate.

  • gus2000

    If the only goal of a retail presence is “branding” and “customer experience”, then why not just open the “Microsoft Amusement Park”? Think about how much they have in common: They both seem affordable until you factor in how much you must spend on extras once inside; the layout is designed to keep you from leaving; most things are there to scare the crap out of you (“Ride the ‘Blue Screen of Death’!”); and there are clowns everywhere.

  • JohnWatkins

    Actually, I think 1 infinite loop was not built until 1993, but there was an Apple company store in the headquarters building by the time the Mac was being produced. (Perhaps the building they occupied after the 1980 IPO(where the Lisa commercial was shot?)