7. Use a Reliable Battery
The iPod has not been immune to criticism. Consumers have long complained that its glossy casing is too scratchable and that the device’s internal software sometimes goes haywire. But Apple’s biggest customer-service headaches, by far, have come from the iPod’s lithium-ion batteries.
All lithium-ion batteries slowly lose capacity as they are repeatedly drained and recharged. In the case of the iPod, Apple says the dimunition should be too small for users to notice over the lifetimes of their devices. But some owners of first-, second-, and third-generation iPods (those sold before 2005) claimed that their devices’ batteries lost capacity much faster than expected. Since the iPod’s case is not designed to be opened by users, these owners couldn’t replace the batteries. So they sued – and Apple agreed in a 2005 out-of-court settlement to compensate them or extend their warranties to cover the problems. These days, Apple will replace the batteries of mailed-in iPods for $59.
For mobile gadgets, there are still few alternatives to lithium-ion batteries. But Microsoft has the opportunity to shop around for a supplier whose batteries that can be recharged more times before wearing out, and that last longer between rechargings. (The current number to beat is 20 hours, the battery life claimed by Apple for the 60-gigabyte video iPod.)
8. Hire New Product Marketers
A parody showing how Microsoft package designers would debase the artsy, minimalist Apple iPod box with stickers, bullet points, and endorsements was one of the most popular underground videos circulating on the Internet this year. (One copy of the video on YouTube has been viewed nearly 550,000 times.) Surprisingly, the video was produced at Microsoft’s behest. “It was an internal-only video clip commissioned by our packaging [team] to humorously highlight the challenges we have faced re: packaging and to educate marketers here about the pitfalls of packaging/branding,” Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla told The iPod Observer by e-mail in March.
That Microsoft is developing an awareness of its own design stumbles is a positive sign. But giving the MiPod anything like the cool factor enjoyed by the iPod will require a much bigger step: leaving behind Microsoft’s corporate culture of “more is more,” in which improving a product means adding new features, or improving a product box means adding more text. That’s what led to real product boxes like this one for Windows XP, and to software like Microsoft Word, which is used by millions but has dozens of menu items, toolbar buttons, and advanced functions that most people never touch.
Doing these eight things won’t guarantee a successful launch for the MiPod – there are too many other variables in play. But it would certainly take ammunition away from critics who think Microsoft lacks the design savvy, technical chops, or familiarity with customers needed to launch a hit mobile device. Taking similar steps might have saved the Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC, a touch-screen mini-tablet-PC device designed by Microsoft, introduced by Samsung and Asus in May – and universally criticized as overpriced and underpowered.
Microsoft seems to want to do better this time: it has reportedly assigned star executive J. Allard, vice president of the team that built the Xbox, to head the MiPod project. One big question is whether Allard can organize his team to meet the reported 2006 holiday delivery date. If that date slips, the way Vista’s launch date has repeatedly, it will give Apple time to plow ahead with next-generation iPods, which may include both Wi-Fi and text-to-speech capabilities. And perhaps the biggest unknown: whether Allard will be allowed to “think different” enough to make Microsoft cool again in the eyes of young gadget buyers and music listeners.