Retro: Microsoft Zune
Redmond’s iPod rival that never took off
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.