It’s impossible to look at Microsoft’s efforts to promote its Bing search engine as anything but a naked pursuit of Google’s, uh, Google. And as much as I want a Surface Pro 2, a lot of that comes from my inherent iPad envy—much the same feeling I imagine Microsoft had when creating its flagship tablet. Even the mighty Xbox, that juggernaut of console video games, was Microsoft’s attempt to brute force its way into an industry previously dominated by veteran electronics manufacturers from Japan. So it’s no huge surprise to learn that Microsoft is testing its own variant on Google Glass, the leading innovator in a trend a Wall Street Journal article calls “devices worn on the face.”

The article cites a “person familiar with Microsoft’s project,” who says that the company has been ordering components to test its own “eyewear prototypes,” which, the source says, may never actually make it to store shelves. All of this testing and prototyping is because the company is “determined to take the lead in hardware manufacturing to make sure the company won’t miss out on the opportunities in the wearable gadget market,” the sources is quoted as saying. This dovetails with earlier reports that Microsoft was making its own Surface-branded smartwatch to break into the wrist-based wearable device market.

One would hope that Microsoft would be able to put a rival to Google Glass on shelves on day one, if for no other reason than the value of competition in the tech world. If consumers have choice in different versions of popular gadgets, it drives manufacturers to continue to innovate and to price competitively. If Google’s the only one making “devices worn on the face” (which is my new favorite phrase), then Google gets to dictate the conversation.

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Now, all that aside, let’s revisit the source’s explanation for Microsoft going down this road in the first place (emphasis mine): the company wants to “take the lead in hardware manufacturing.” That, I believe, will simply not happen, at least not with this approach. Products like the Xbox and the Surface are great and all, but Microsoft will never catch up with Google or Apple if all it does is chase after ideas rather than pursue new ideas.

The iPod, which arguably kickstarted the current Apple product renaissance, may have been a new twist on an old product—the MP3 player. But the company instilled enough innovative designs and features to create a whole new product category. MP3 players when from niche to mainstream in an instant, and that was because Apple took an old idea and truly made it unique.

So what did Microsoft do to enter that field? It made this:

zune

No one has fond memories of the Zune. No one refers to Microsoft’s efforts with Windows Mobile as “a Zune with a phone in it.” The Zune was, without question, an obvious and inferior imitation of a more popular product. Complete misfires like the Zune are probably a big factor in why consumers are still somewhat skeptical of the Surface. Even with all its innovations and superior features to the not-quite-a-computer that is the iPad, the Surface is still pretty clearly Microsoft’s attempt to beat the iPad at its own game. And, again, why bother with a Bing when Google works so well?

Again, I want to stress that these devices and services may legitimately work great. The Zune may have been a perfectly competent little music player. But the stink of “knock-off” is a hard one to wash away. If Microsoft truly wants to lead, it can’t do so by copying the leaders. Doing so can’t make it anything other than a follower.


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