On Zune: satisfying experiences should start with opening the box

First off, let me say that I remember when unpacking a Mac was an experience like opening any other consumer electronic (c. 1985). Except that it was a computer… you know, the things that at the time arrived in shipping crates on pallets. Opening up a Macintosh 128K computer was like nothing I’d ever experienced before (yes, I owned one), from the outer box to the manuals and system disks. Same went for the 20th anniversary Mac.

Over the last few years, a number of vocal people in the Mac community have relished the experience of opening a new Mac, such as this fellow:

“Unpacking an Apple product is an experience unto itself. Everything is so perfectly arranged to maximize the impact of your new PowerBook not as a piece of equipment, but a piece of your life. Just taking it out of the box makes you feel special (which, of course, you are… you’re a Mac user now!).”

As Wired reported last fall, there is an art to documenting the arrival home of the most recent Macs, from unpacking a Macmini to towers. It has developed quite a community of people capturing the entire unpacking process from start to finish…

“One such gallery still popular — and receiving regular hits two years after it was posted — is the Genie Apple G5 Setup Gallery, which stars songwriter Genie Nilsson as a Power Mac G5’s lovely and talented assistant. Nilsson’s husband, Troy, said the gallery was an instant hit.”

Although the new LifeCam VX-3000 package design gives a nod to the now legendary i-pod PRO 2005 XP package video, I found the package to be informative if just to provide me with simultaneous translations of marketing and product specs.


But far from one I would save (the box is already in the recycling bin). I did appreciate that the wizards on the packaging design team were able to find a vendor that made it so easy to recycle the three major parts: outer paper package, single fold over plastic bubble pak and inside folded cardboard support. The purpose of the package is clear: provide shelf space, show the product and attract attention from all the other cameras competing for your attention.

In retail, this approach is common and I’ll argue helpful: it was great to see all of the major benefits and specs right there on the package. I’m one of those people who will ask staff in retail to open a box if I can’t find the answer I’m looking for on the outside of the package; more often than not they oblige and are eager to learn right along side me. People in the Entertainment & Devices division who make the hardware — mice, keyboards and now cameras — are aware of the impact great aesthetics play in buying decisions: I bought the new VX-3000 based on the sleek design and comparable specs, in that order.

Back to the Mac. In my home-before-Redmond, Mark Morford wrote in the SF Gate this about a new Apple PowerBook…

“And yet. You can’t help but notice. Apple seemed to really put some serious work into this, into the details, the packaging, the shape and texture. The rich black box, the clean unobtrusive font, the silver sliver inch-wide side-shot photograph of the PowerBook itself on the box lid.

“No screaming colors and no garish cartoon graphics and no massive corporate logo and no bullet-point exclamation points listing the outrageous features you’ll never use and you’re like, wait a minute, what they hell does Apple think they’re hawking here, art?

“You can’t help but handle the package with something approaching astonishment and even a trace of reverence. Could this actually be something interesting and reasonably cool? Could this be something tactile and lovely and graceful that flies in the face of normal mediocre dumbed-down consumer design and tepid IKEA kit furniture and bland Windows chyme?”

I think that we will see a different story when Zune hit stores, judging from the sneak peak of the package.

People on the Zune design team are conscious of the market impact that a great package design has on the overall consumer experience: the box the item comes in, the Zune hardware, the Zune’s UI and the online service. As we know, the product is more than the package, it’s the whole experience. Perhaps our customers will find a smart, well-designed and satisfying retail box experience (aka OOBE), one worthy of a Flickr photo stream, along with a simple and clear initial start up and configuration experience, and ultimately a great day-to-day user experience.

But for the box, I bet that it will be one of those packages that you keep on a shelf and in plain view, rather than stuck away in a closet waiting for the day you decide to upgrade your gear and auction the item off on eBay. And an experience worthy of a few press articles, Flickr streams, web sites and blog entries. 

Come Zune launch date, I may break trend and once again join the early adopter camp: we waited several months before buying our Xbox 360, as our boys continued to enjoy their tried-and-true Xbox. And maybe I’ll post my own stream of pictures on the “Opening of The Box.”

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Zune pictures now online: CNET News Article

Today, CNET has has a suite of photos on the new Microsoft Zune digital media player. This is a link off of their article on “Microsoft unwraps Zune for holiday season.”

“The Zune in all three of its colors: white, brown and black. With its built-in wireless connection, Zune owners can share music with one another.”

I thought it was more of an eggplant than brown: I guess brown is the new black.

I’m interested to try the Zune-compatible subscription music service in comparison with Rhapsody: offering people the option to consume music for a flat fee is attractive.

As I mentioned, my son is saving up his money for a new Zune device. I think that he will go with the black. Looking forward to seeing how the whole experience will come together.

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Apple’s iTV promise is a reality today in Media Center, and others

As a follow up to my , the New York Times has on article on Apple’s Plans to Inhabit Living Room.

Steven P. Jobs, Apple Computer’s chief executive, concluded a much-anticipated company event on Tuesday with his usual tease, noting that he had “one last thing” to introduce.

“Then, in an unusual departure from Apple’s practice of announcing new products when they are ready to ship, he talked about a product due out early next year that will be the company’s first step into the living room. The device, which Apple is calling iTV for now, will plug into a television and wirelessly pull in video and music from a Macintosh computer in the den or from the Internet. The box, which will cost $299, is about the size of a slim paperback novel.

“The iTV device places Apple squarely in the consumer electronics market and gives it a way to compete directly with Microsoft and PC industry giants like Dell and Hewlett-Packard, which are also eagerly looking at markets for entertainment beyond the PC screen.

“He did what he needed to do,” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director for Jupiter Research. “It puts him way ahead of everyone else” in the effort to extend the PC to the living room.”

Really? I’m not sure how the “iTV” announcement “puts him way ahead of everyone else.”

Video downloaded via the Internet is one way to get your content, arguably one that is growing in popularity as people develop better distribution systems and business models. Streaming video is getting better with reasonable quality as I found with . People are changing the way they look at their PCs and their TVs, per my post on “The end of TV as we know it.” 

As I mentioned last month, look what happened when Disney’s opened the gates to content on the Internet: they had “37 million downloads, with an average of 1 million visitors a day, and 1.5 billion page views” over a two month period this summer, when they had Disney Channel shows available on That sounds like a successful model to me.

When the movie and TV studios open up their catalogues and sell more movies and shows over the entertainment sites like Rhapsody, Urge and through iTunes, then we as consumers may no longer need to record live TV, as we do at home for nearly all our viewing. But that day is still a long time away, IMHO: there are plenty of issues yet to be resolved, around how much to charge for programs, how consumers and studios become more comfortable with the protections (like DRM) around what is sold/rented, and when to make the content available (like we see sometimes with simultaneous theatrical and on-demand releases).

For now, the DVR model works for personal, “on-demand” programming, whether you record the content via a Windows Media Center, ReplayTV or TiVo CE device, or if DVR is offered as a feature with your cable or satellite set-top box. That way, you always have what you want to watch available at your leisure. On-demand consumption via cable is growing, too, especially as more and more popular programming is made available and (in my view) often free. Then comes Blockbuster and Netflix model for renting early release movies and large catalogues of films via mail order still has an appeal: personally, I find that we receive DVDs a day or two within ordering them. These are some competitive distribution and business model points for the studios.

The “revolution” that Jobs talks about is not only being held back by current limitations in Internet download speeds, it’s around comfort in the business models of getting content to the home, and the restrictions around how people are allowed to view or listen to it. As I’ve said previously, Rhapsody has changed the way I listen to music, my ReplayTV changed the way I watch TV, and the Media Center is aggregating all of it on one device — one system — that let’s me almost seamlessly consume (view, listen) to the content I want. For many consumers, the challenge has been the way to get the content to the devices I want that is more automated than the way I sync phones, audio and video players to my Media Center: I look forward to being able to extend my content easily to my portable devices, similar to the way I use the Media Center Extender concept via our home network. (Sling is close, but not as seamless as I’d like.)

It’s not just the Internet or the speed of the network. It’s not the last mile or the last 100 feet to the home, as we’re getting speeds to households that are capable of getting VHS and (close to or at) DVD quality. The challenge is in the last 10 feet: as a content company or distributor, how do you get consumers to pay for something, making it easy for them to buy and consume at the point of purchase? In this case, that point is the TV (or the DVR/PC connected to a TV). It’s also the PC, mobile phone, the portable and eventually wireless media players (Zune can’t come fast enough).

This is where I think Jobs’ value proposition of an end-to-end system works… that is if you have a Mac, and iTunes, and an iPod and an iTV adapter. For those who manage their content in iTunes, I see the elegance. With Apple’s vision of a holistic system, there is the promise of being able to provide a compelling home entertainment experience, just like the cable and satellite companies offer in so many packages today. But I have that experience at home today with a Media Center PC at the center of our entertainment universe, and it’s by no means the sole way we enjoy entertainment, and that’s the real goal: enjoying the programming.

One challenge is that cable and satellite offer this at a fairly attractive monthly price, one that has a low barrier to entry and is arguably easier to use for mainstream consumers. For some, the Media Center makes sense; for many more, a as a simpler alternative in cable and satellite all-in-one set-top boxes make more sense as does the promise of video over IP as outlined in our Microsoft IPTV solutions. And look at another example: as Major Nelson blogged, “Xbox Live users in the U.S. can now download the full length TV show ‘Battlestar Galactica: The Story So Far’ in standard def from the Xbox Live Marketplace. Just in case you are wondering, this marks one of the first times that a complete TV episode has been digitally delivered to your Xbox 360 over Xbox Live.”

To the industry and even our own teams in MSN, Live, Xbox and Zune: make it easier to get the programming in a form that I can enjoy it and wrap it in a business model I can grok. For my family, that simplicity is in a set monthly fee for services that we pay for our mobile phones, music service, cable/ satellite TV and DVDs by mail. 

In short, many people would rather not have to be an IT Professional debugging our internet connection or home network in order to watch the latest episode of Project Runway. It should just work. And it shouldn’t cost $1.99 an episode.

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Large Screens: “The Best Computer Upgrade Ever”

Leave it to Apple to help us make priorities on our peripheral purchases: as noted on Slate yesterday, Apple has posted a study by Pfeiffer Consulting promoting ultra-large monitors (or monitors >24″) as a boon to productivity. Say’s Slate:

“When working on a computer, we lose much more time than we realize through user-interface manipulations,” Pfeiffer’s researchers wrote—even if we’re handling only e-mail and Web pages and not Photoshop.

“I dismissed the report as marketing collateral, but after a few weeks at my own widescreen I’ve reached the same conclusion—it’s surprising how much more work I crank out lately. Co-workers praise my newfound motivation. The truth is, I can finally see what I’m doing.”

No kidding. I noticed the difference at home upgrading from a 17″ to a larger wide-screen LCDs: it made a major difference, allowing me a greater work surface and improved visibility over all of the things I keep open on the desktop. (A coworker questioned my sanity when they noticed I had 30-40 mails open along with 15-20 browser windows – that’s an every-day occurrence.) Better, look to the crop of 20 to 24″ wide-screen monitors (as reviewed at CNET and PCWorld, with reviews of the top 5 20-inch and 23-inch): many good choices in the 20″ range for under $500. For improved performance, pair the monitor with a new video card with increased capabilities (like DVR, extra memory) and it’s a new computer experience.

[Note, added 011609: a great 20″ screen today is under $200, and highly-rated, name-brand 24″ models for around $300.]

If you want to know more about the display market, I recommend the Display Search web site.

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Slate on “The Myth of the Living-Room PC”

Thanks for the IM with the article in Slate this week on “The Myth of the Living-Room PC.”

From the article:

“McCracken says most homes are consolidating around a two-hub model. A PC (or Mac) with some multimedia features anchors the home office, while a TV with some computerized gear—think TiVo, not desktop computer—owns the living room. Tech marketers talk about the “2-foot interface” of the PC versus the “10-foot interface” of the TV. When you use a computer, you want to lean forward and engage with the thing, typing and clicking and multitasking. When you watch Lost, you want to sit back and put your feet up on the couch. My tech-savvy friends who can afford anything they want set up a huge HDTV with TiVo, cable, and DVD players—then sit in front of it with a laptop on their knees. They use Google and AIM while watching TV, but they keep their 2-foot and 10-foot gadgets separate.”

Myth? It depends on your definition. Certainly not a myth like the Yeti or Ogopogo (look that one up). 

As I noted earlier this year, we have a Media Center PC (running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005) at the centre of our system, with a Media Center Extender (aka MCE) in the bedroom and an Xbox with a MCE built in to the system. For ease of use, the vast majority of our entertainment viewing comes through our ReplayTV DVRs that allows us to time shift our programming from the networks. But I find that with our Media Center, we’re taking more and more media with us, and streaming more media for the kids (and for us, esp movies and specials).

The lines are blurring as people are more on the go, and where you want to enjoy the entertainment (not counting the recent trouble at the airports, as well as Snakes on Planes), whether it’s in the home (where the bulk is enjoyed), or on the road, in the skies or while you’re waiting to get on the plane.

The scene in the home living room is changing, slowly but surely. Will Poole announced at WinHEC that Microsoft has “sold over 10 million copies with our partners of Media Center PCs, and we’re selling at a rate of over 1 million per month.” That’s a big installed base, but still a small percentage of all PCs sold worldwide, and a percentage of the DVRs: InformationWeek reported that JupiterResearch estimates “nearly half of U.S. households are expected to own DVRs in 2010, as cable and satellite companies heavily market them to consumers, according to JupiterResearch. The installed base is expected to increase to 55 million households from 7 million last year.”

At least outside the Oz that is Redmond and some surrounding communities, the bulk of viewing comes via a dedicated device, like a Tivo, ReplayTV or other DVR (like those from Panasonic). But watch out as more and more free or close-to-free set top boxes from cable companies, satellite operators and telephone companies offer powerful and relatively inexpensive boxes that include DVR. Analysts expect those devices to dominate the market in a few years, whereas today, standalone DVRs, like TiVo’s, dominate. Some are even using the Comcast DVR featuring MicrosoftTV Foundation Edition. (Disclaimer: ‘though I worked with Comcast and other providers in America while I was working at MSTV in the E&D division, we have not yet made the move to digtal in our home.)

That’s a huge leap from the start of the DVR market just a few years ago in 1999-2000.

So the myth of the living room PC is not so much of a myth, rather more of an uncommon beast. But the numbers are going up, and the market for multifunction entertainment PCs looks pretty healthy.

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