How the Zune—Yes, the Zune—Revolutionized Microsoft

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 26 2012 3:22 AM

The Flop That Saved Microsoft

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

(Continued from Page 1)

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?

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 22 2014 8:07 AM Why Haven’t the Philadelphia Eagles Ever Won a Super Bowl?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.