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Old 09-14-2006, 02:22 PM
Jason Dunn
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Default Microsoft and Their History of Hardware Design

In the lead up to the official Zune launch, there's been much discussion around Microsoft's history of hardware design, and how some feel they don't have any experience designing hardware. I disagree with that, and here's why: compared to their ventures in the world of software, Microsoft has had relatively few hardware products, but for the most part they've all been quite impressively designed. A quick breakdown off the top of my head:

  • Microsoft Keyboard and Mice: I don't know the market share numbers, but the market is essentially ruled by Microsoft and Logitech. I'd say that Microsoft's designs are strong, and I've been pleased with many Microsoft keyboards over the years. Lately I've switched to Logitech because they seem to have more robust wireless connections, but I still recommend Microsoft wireless products to those with a single PC and single mouse/keyboard. Microsoft keyboards and mice are quick and easy to set up - great out of box consumer experience.

  • Microsoft Networking Products: After using D-Link, Linksys, and other mainstream networking vendors products for years, my first Microsoft networking product was a breath of fresh air. I've owned an MN-500 (802.11b wireless router), an MN-700 (802.11g), and several of their Ethernet hubs. All were superbly designed from a hardware point of view: they looked great, had excellent functionality, and the out of box setup experience was light years beyond what any other vendor was offering. Netgear is the only other networking vendor that comes close in out of box experience. Microsoft is no longer making their networking products, but that doesn't diminish the quality one bit.

  • Webcams: This is a brand-new hardware realm for Microsoft, and not having used one of their products yet, I don't have much to say. The reviews I've read say that their Webcams are functional enough, though apparently they don't reach the same overall quality levels as Logitech. First gen product blues? Perhaps. I'd say too early to call them a failure though. The design of the cameras themselves look strong, and I'm sure the out of box experience is solid.

  • Xbox and Xbox 360: Although the Japanese market may not have dug it, everyone I knew liked the way the original Xbox looked - like a muscle car. More than the hardware design itself though, the overall Xbox experience was one of quality. The controllers felt good, the software dashboard was well-designed. and the original Xbox was a solid product that made decent inroads against much more established competition. The Xbox 360 was a huge leap ahead in the design department, both from a hardware and software point of view. The dashboard user interface is fantastic, the functionality of the hardware is excellent, and the out of box end user experience was very high-quality: everything from the packaging to the instructions were top-tier.

  • Cordless Phones: Does anyone else remember the MP-900, Microsoft's entry into the cordless phone market in 1999? I bought one, and believe it or not, it was damn impressive! The hardware itself was fantastic; much higher quality overall than similar cordless phones at the time, and no product on the market could match the functionality. After installing the software on your PC, and connecting the phone to your computer (via a serial port I believe), you could use voice activation on the phone to cay "Call John" and the PC would initiate a call from your address book and hand it off to the phone. The product mustn't have sold very well though, because Microsoft never released a newer version, of even any drivers for Windows 98.

  • Gaming Products: Microsoft has released a variety of joysticks, game pads, and other gaming products over the years. I owned several iterations of the Sidewinder joystick back in the day, and all were excellently designed and executed upon - I had zero complaints about the hardware design or functionality.

  • Other Products: Looking through the Microsoft Hardware Site, there are a smattering of other products, including a wireless "clicker" for presentations, but I haven't used their other products. I can't recall having read a negative review about any of the remaining products though.

  • Concept Designs: I've seen PDA and phone concept designs, from in-house Microsoft design teams, that would make your jaw drop. I can't say much do to NDAs, but it's very clear to me that Microsoft employs people that really care about hardware design. For the launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft has created a hardware design guide for OEMs to use if they wish. Microsoft knows that hardware design matters just as much as software design. We no longer live in the era of the bland beige box - design matters.

So what's my point here? I believe that Microsoft has a better track record with their in-house hardware designs than most people would care to admit. This gives me hope that the Zune effort as a whole will be guided by some of these same principles that previous hardware designs have tapped into. That hope is bolstered by the fact that the Zune team is made up of some ex-Xbox 360 team members; one would hope they'd bring much of the same design ethos that guided the Xbox 360 into the Zune project.

My enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when I read that Toshiba was manufacturing the Zune for Microsoft - I wouldn't say that Toshiba has the most impressive hardware designs I've ever seen, though their laptops have certainly improved in the past couple of years. I don't know how much input the Zune team had over the design, but we can hope they did. The FCC pictures we've seen of the first Zune haven't been very impressive - I'm concerned about the thickness of the unit - but I've yet to see any product look impressive in FCC pictures. Later today there should be some significant Zune news, so the shroud of mystery will be lifted - at least a little.
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