With Great Reviews Come Great Responsibility
There's been a lot going on in Zune-land over the past few days. We've had everything from the <a target="_blank" href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23172/and-we-re-official.html">launch</a> of the new <a href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23463/zune-v2-walkthrough-video-part-1.html" target="_blank">devices</a>, <a target="_blank" href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23466/zune-30-firmware-update-old-is-made-new.html">firmware</a>, <a target="_blank" href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23462/zune-v2-desktop-software-first-sync-experience.html">software</a>, and <a href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23370/zune-accessories-announced.html">accessories</a>, to their respective <a href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23457/zune-v2-unboxing-video.html">unboxing</a>, <a target="_blank" href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23458/zune-v2-first-impressions-video.html">first-looks</a>, and <a target="_blank" href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/23478/zunerama-reviews-of-the-zune-80-and-zune-8.html">reviews</a>. Sounds pretty much like last year, right? The difference is that this year, the reviews are generally positive, with few gripes that didn't exist a year ago. Maybe it has something to do with the Zune fans.<br /><br />When Engadget's Ryan Block wrote a somewhat negative "<a target="_blank" href="http://www.engadget.com/2007/11/13/new-zune-review-better-than-before-but-not-quite-good-enough/">review</a>" of the new Zunes, Zune defenders came out in droves to pen over 120 comments criticizing Ryan's conclusions, website, and even his mother (okay, that last comment was written in jest—mostly.) The biggest reason for complaint, though, and why I placed "review" in quotes just a sentence ago is that he didn't so much detail his experience with the device or software as make a laundry list of reasons why Zune won't beat the iPod. In such reviews comparison to the competition is inevitable, but not at the level that Mr. Block chose.<br /><br />He quickly wrote a <a target="_blank" href="http://www.engadget.com/2007/11/14/zune-people-we-hear-you-expect-more-coverage-soon/">follow-up</a> defending his Zune club-member status, and claiming he'd been a supporter of the Zune initiative since day one (he also pointed to Engadget's iPhone and iPod reviews as evidence that they aren't Mac fanbois, but it was no use). Block's Engadget colleague, Thomas Ricker, <a href="http://www.engadget.com/2007/11/14/mossbergs-new-zune-review-sounds-familiar/" target="_blank">tried to validate</a> the arguments vetted in the infamous review by claiming gadget king Walt Mossberg <a target="_blank" href="http://solution.allthingsd.com/20071114/singing-a-new-zune/">made the same argument</a>—again, no dice. Mocking the Zune's brown color and people like Steven "Microsoft Zune" Smith, Engadget consistently decried the Zune's inferiority and how it would never surpass the iPod. Granted, it wasn't as bad as Gizmodo or ZD-Net's coverage, but they both have since published positive reviews of the Gen2 device. My how times change.<br /><br />I believe one of the biggest reasons for the shift, besides the actual merit the Zune team itself earned, was due to the Zune's increasing fan base. Tech blogs aren't typically known as bastions of journalistic integrity, and will publish the news its readers want to read more than actually worthy stories. More fans of a brand or device tends to equal more coverage, or at least more favorable coverage. This means that Apple glitz gets pushed to the top while worthy yet less appealing devices and technology are mentioned only in passing. The Zune seems to be heading more towards the Apple direction, with a flashy interface for the device and the software. While certain features are genuinely useful or fun, I question the long-term utility of Cover Flow, for example. The Zune's touchpad, while nice, gets easily confused between a vertical and horizontal swipe, and will often put me on a different twist menu than the one I wanted, with no easily way to get back. And overall, the firmware just feels less optimized (not less polished) than last year's first offering. This is nothing an update can't fix (as we've seen), but it sets a dangerous precedent about whether version 3 of the firmware will be backwards compatible with v2 <u>and</u> v1 hardware. We'll see.<br /><br />Hopefully Microsoft will see it can't just rest on its laurels and expect people to follow. Apple has been receiving a backlash only recently because they failed to keep up the illusion of perfection. Can Microsoft do better?