The Ode: Microsoft Zune (2006 - 2011)

Launched as a rival to the iPod, Microsoft's quaintly brown-coloured music player arrived with great expectations, and leaves a great disappointment.

The Microsoft Zune was born five years ago to great expectations. The company hoped its new media player would rival the Apple iPod, which dominated the market. If nothing else, the Zune intrigued techies with it’s so-ugly-it’s-cool clunky brown shell, which ended up being the most popular of the original three colours. Though Apple had just released its fifth-generation iPod, the Zune offered some unique features: a built-in FM radio receiver, and a Wi-Fi connection that meant Zune users could swap tunes with one other (unofficially dubbed “squirting” to the delight of reviewers). After its first week on the market, the Zune snagged the No.2 spot in portable media device sales, and though it was mocked by late-night television host Craig Ferguson for being just like the iPod except “not as good,” sold one million units in eight months. (Apple, though, sold 32 million iPods.)

A month later, the Zune slipped to the No. 5 spot, and Microsoft publicly stated it would invest hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years to ensure the player climbed back to No.2. The following year, Microsoft released the Zune 80. It was slimmer, could synchronize songs automatically to a computer, and featured an iPod-like touch-sensitive button for quick scrolling. It was well received, and a review on Wired magazine’s website even recommended the Zune 80 over the classic iPod because of its superior design and expanding library. The Zune marketplace, equivalent to the iTunes library, was innovative in that it offered a monthly subscription for $14.99 that allowed users access to more two million songs (which has since grown to 11 million). It seemed the Zune was carving out a niche for itself.

By 2008, the Zune was the third-best-selling portable media device, and it finally became available in Canada. Still, there was no shortage of critics, and in addition to being the butt of more late-night jokes, this time by Conan O’Brien, holiday revenue dropped 54% from the previous year, from $185 million to $85 million. By this time, the iPhone and iPod Touch were a year-old, and many Apple users were ditching iPods for more versatile devices. Microsoft’s strategy of being all about the music and video was failing, and retailers such as GameStop stopped selling it.

In 2009, the device’s make-or-break year, Microsoft came out with the Zune HD, that featured a touch screen, Internet browsing, and high-definition video. Though tech geeks praised the Zune for offering the best media experience on the market, consumers were more concerned with quantity over quality of features. The next year, Microsoft simply added more storage to the Zune HD and focused on developing the software platform.

In its first year, the Zune captured a 9% unit share of the portable media device market, but by 2010 it had dropped to 0.5%. This month, Bloomberg reported Microsoft wouldn’t be putting out new models, and an official statement said the company was focused on developing Zune software to run on other devices, such as the new Windows Phone 7. Though Microsoft never came close to breaking Apple’s dominance, the Zune should be remembered for being an innovator in media consumption, and pioneering streaming and subscription services. However, as summed up in the title of a post by tech blogger Anil Dash: “The problem is, the Zune is brown.” The device will most likely be remembered as the awkwardly dressed new kid who showed up to take on the playground bullies and was soundly beaten.