Retro: Mi­crosoft Zune

Red­mond’s iPod ri­val that never took off

Computer Shopper - - CONTENTS -

The por­ta­ble me­dia player that took on Ap­ple’s mighty iPod – and failed

MI­CROSOFT’S CUR­RENT HARD­WARE is pretty slick, with the Sur­face range of­fer­ing swish tablet-cum-lap­top hy­brids and the Xbox One X hold­ing the crown as the most pow­er­ful games con­sole ever made. But the Red­mond com­pany has plenty of fail­ures to go along­side its suc­cesses.

Back in the early 2000s, Mi­crosoft was do­ing well, with Win­dows XP dom­i­nat­ing the op­er­at­ing sys­tem mar­ket and the orig­i­nal Xbox chal­leng­ing Sony’s PlaySta­tion 2. So Mi­crosoft de­cided to take a swipe at the iPod, the de­vice that helped fuel Ap­ple’s resur­gence.

To take on Steve Jobs’ com­pany in the por­ta­ble me­dia player mar­ket, Mi­crosoft came up with the Zune brand. Con­sist­ing of me­dia play­ers, soft­ware and a mu­sic sub­scrip­tion ser­vice dubbed Zune Mu­sic Pass, Red­mond hoped to steal the iPod’s thun­der, which had been build­ing since its re­lease in Oc­to­ber 2001.

In Novem­ber 2006, Mi­crosoft re­leased the Zune 30, a por­ta­ble dig­i­tal me­dia player that wasn’t a mil­lion miles away from the styling of the iPod. At 112x61mm and a rel­a­tively bulky 15mm thick, the Zune 30 still man­aged to fit nicely into the hands of dig­i­tal mu­sic fans and came in a range of in­ter­est­ing colour trims.

Into its com­pact but durable frame it squeezed 30GB of stor­age, com­pa­ra­ble to the lower-end iPods at the time. This was enough for a healthy col­lec­tion of mu­sic, pho­tos and videos, all nav­i­gated through a 3in, 16-bit colour dis­play and a cir­cu­lar con­troller pad flanked with back and play/pause buttons.

With Wi-Fi for sharing some songs, which was ahead of its time, and an at­trac­tive user in­ter­face, the Zune 30 was fairly well equipped to take on the iPod. But it failed.

SUP­PORT IN A STORM

The Zune 30’s me­dia play­back was com­pa­ra­ble to the iPod and other me­dia play­ers avail­able at the time. But it lacked com­pat­i­bil­ity with mu­sic from pop­u­lar ser­vices such as Nap­ster, and had no na­tive sup­port for WAV or WMA loss­less files. Video sup­port was far from com­pre­hen­sive, while photo com­pat­i­bil­ity was lim­ited to the JPEG for­mat.

But the Zune 30’s big­gest problem was it ar­rived five years af­ter the orig­i­nal iPod made its de­but. In that time, Ap­ple had man­aged to po­si­tion the iPod as the must-have gad­get, mean­ing the Zune 30 never re­ally stood a chance. How­ever, it was in good com­pany as the iPod saw off many other ri­vals as well, de­spite its fairly high cost and the need to opt into Cu­per­tino’s iTunes ecosys­tem.

De­spite fail­ing to knock the iPod off its throne, Mi­crosoft per­se­vered with the Zune, launch­ing the Zune 80 in 2007, which of­fered de­vices with 80GB or 120GB of stor­age, a larger dis­play and better bat­tery life. At the same time, Red­mond re­leased the Zune 4, 8 and 16 mod­els to take on the iPod Nano line.

The sec­ond wave of Zune play­ers were seen as proper com­pe­ti­tion to Ap­ple’s iPod Clas­sic. But they were ren­dered ob­so­lete be­fore re­lease by the iPod Touch, which ar­rived in Septem­ber 2007 and was es­sen­tially an iPhone with­out the phone bit.

The Zune line-up sim­ply couldn’t com­pete with the iPod Touch, which rode the coat tails of the iPhone, the de­vice that could be cred­ited with fill­ing Ap­ple’s cof­fers with the gar­gan­tuan piles of cash it has to­day.

In 2009, Mi­crosoft had an­other bite at the cherry with the Zune HD. Sport­ing an OLED dis­play in a chas­sis that stood out from iPods and other por­ta­ble me­dia play­ers, it had a slick user in­ter­face that was the pre­cur­sor to the tile-based in­ter­face found in the Win­dows Phone and Win­dows 8 op­er­at­ing sys­tem. It had a gutsy Nvidia Te­gra chipset to power it.

THE LATE SHOW

The Zune HD was met with crit­i­cal ac­claim. But like the Win­dows Phone that fol­lowed it, the Zune HD was stymied by a lack of apps, its late ar­rival to the mar­ket, and fail­ure to of­fer a com­pelling Ap­ple al­ter­na­tive.

So in Oc­to­ber 2011, Mi­crosoft an­nounced it would dis­con­tinue mak­ing Zune hard­ware, hav­ing failed in a five-year long cam­paign to at­tract peo­ple away from the iPod. Come June 2012, the Zune was dead.

Zune stands as one of Mi­crosoft’s big­gest flops, yet the legacy of the Zune lives on with the DNA of its in­ter­face vis­i­ble in Win­dows 10. Mi­crosoft’s now-honed forward-think­ing ap­proach to hard­ware could be at­trib­uted to the lessons learnt from the Zune fail­ure.

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