[Op-Ed] Microsoft v. iPod: Is it the Software, Stupid?


The widely misreported, and sadly misunderstood, remarks of Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president of MSN at Microsoft, have set both Mac and PC sites alight with scornful derision of his purported "$50 music players...which will look and feel as good as iPod" remark.

Problem is, of course, Mehdi didn't say it. And he's probably keeping his head down and trap shut now. The more accurate version of his comments is here. (The full transcript is available from Microsoft here).

But stop. Read between the lines. Just what is Microsoft up to? That part of Mehdi's comments, at least, should prick up all our ears.

Now, apart from a half-decent mouse, keyboard and a next-generation G5 XBox Service Pack 2, Microsoft doesn't do hardware. Not very well, anyway. Cast your mind back to, oh, around 1984. Ready? Good. Apple's about to launch the Mac. Gates is about to launch Mac software. Oh, and something called 'Windows' as well.

Fast forward 20 years. Windows runs on around 90% of the world's PCs. The Mac OS share has shrunk to maybe 5%. Why? Because Microsoft licensed its Windows OS to run on generic x86 architecture. Apple didn't.

The same two men are in charge of the same two companies. Only Apple was the behemoth in 1984 and Microsoft was small fry. And Gates was only a multimillionaire.

One thing hasn't changed: Apple's OSes (yes, plural) remain closed. Well, so does Microsoft's, except that it runs on lots of hardware, although not PowerPC. Apart from the brief clone experiment of the mid-1990s, Apple's crown jewels remain close to its chest.

Which is something that persists with the iPod. Not that anyone seems to mind that you can only play iTunes tracks on iPods, since iTunes has become Windows/Mac platform-agnostic.

Returning to our original premise: the software MS is making for a slew of music player devices. Mehdi said that third-party manufacturers would make devices which would "look and feel" as good as iPod, but would be a little bit cheaper. MS's Portable Media Center software will run on those. Then there are the $50 flash-based players. Media Center will run on those too. Is a picture forming in your head?

Yes, Microsoft is hoping to repeat that three-card-trick of the 1980s/90s: i.e., "Pick a computer, any computer." And, whichever one you pick, you'll wind up with Microsoft. Even if you picked the Mac, you wound up with Microsoft. Office. Unless you live in a cave in the Tora Bora region, and even they were using SE/30s equipped with, if I'm not mistaken...Word.

So what's the strategy?

The Redmond strategy is scale. Standardize the software. Sign on licensees. Get the RIAA on board (after all, they need all the friends they can get). Ink contracts with the record companies promising Janus DRM and the widest deployment of players in the world. The industry buys this.

Suddenly, you have scale. Economies of scale, that is. So firms can offer players with more capacity, more features and a bigger music library than Apple can manage. For maybe $50-100 less than iPod. No, these players are unlikely to ever be as good as iPod. And the music services will never be as well-organized and presented and be as easy to use as the iTMS. But remember: Windows was 'good enough'. And Windows, iteration by iteration, became a passable facsimile of the Mac OS (yes, I just had a conversation with a 20-year-old who hates Macs, doesn't know why, and seriously thought, until I disabused him, that Microsoft invented the GUI).

The only thing missing - which is why iPod is winning handsomely for now - is that there's nothing 'good enough' out there.

But there will be. Microsoft will provide it. We will shun it, scorn it, diss it.

But it will succeed. Ultimately.