How the Zune—Yes, the Zune—Revolutionized Microsoft

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Oct. 26 2012 3:22 AM

The Flop That Saved Microsoft

How the Zune—yes, the Zune—helped revive a great American tech company.

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The originality extends beyond the Zune HD’s skin. Turn on the device and you’re presented with a bright, beautiful, text-only home screen. This is boldly original: Whereas the iPhone and iPod Touch’s main interface features a collection of illustrated icons, Zune’s design guidelines sought to foreground typography. Microsoft licensed a brilliant, minimalist font called Segoe for the Zune, and the device renders its main functions in large, lowercase type. Tap on each menu item—music, videos, etc.—and you dive into the function with a quick, animated zoom. A text-only menu system sounds like it might be boring, but the typography is so pretty, and the software lets you navigate so quickly, that I found it every bit as functional as the iPod Touch’s interface.

Microsoft clearly loved it, too. When the company’s designers began to work on Windows Phone, the mobile operating system that it released in 2010, they made the Zune HD’s text navigation system the centerpiece of the OS. (They also added large, colorful “live tiles” to the phone’s home screen. They’re like the iPhone’s icons, but they can display a feed of constantly updated, useful information in the main menu.) Indeed, the Zune’s interface forms the backbone of what’s now called the “Windows 8 user interface”—the design aesthetic that Microsoft uses in Windows 8, Windows Phone, the Xbox, and all of its Web services. The company uses the Segoe font in all these products, as well as in its new corporate logo.

At this point you might be questioning my revisionist take. If the Zune HD was so good—if it looked and worked just as well as an iPod, and if Microsoft itself loved the device so much that it baked its software into its most important products—why did it fail?

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As I used the Zune, the answer quickly became obvious. Microsoft’s player is just as good as an iPod—it performed all of that device’s main functions pretty well. But there’s no way in which it’s better than an iPod. And that’s why it was doomed.

The first Zune was released in 2006, five years after the iPod’s release. The Zune HD came out in 2009, two years after the iPod Touch went on sale. By that point, iPod had become the world’s de facto digital entertainment device. To beat it, Microsoft needed to offer something that would make Apple’s device look pitifully old-fashioned. The Zune HD didn’t do that. Its design marked it as being different from an iPod, but that was pretty much the only difference. There was no reason to buy the Zune unless you wanted to stand apart from the Apple cult. And there was a cost to standing apart from Apple: Because of its popularity, there were millions of apps and accessories for the iPod. As good as it was, the Zune HD couldn’t match Apple’s sheer market power.

Now that I’ve gone back to use the Zune, though, I’ve grown fond of it. Its only sin was that it came a few years late. If Microsoft was a little faster, the Zune could have been a contender. So I, for one, will stop making fun of it. And when my iPhone’s battery dies, I’ll reach for my new Zune. It plays music just as well as anything that Apple ever built.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.