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.

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Microsoft's Zune HD.
Microsoft's Zune HD

Courtesy Microsoft.

It wasn’t very easy to get my hands on a Zune. After Microsoft’s long-pitied music player won Slate’s Reader Takeover poll—in which I’d promised to reassess an overlooked technology of yore—I had to scramble to get hold of a device I hadn’t used since at least 2008. My local Craigslist listings overflowed with iPods of every variety, but there were only a couple Zunes for sale, and they were the earliest, least-memorable versions of the device. I was looking for a later-model Zune—specifically, the 2009-era touch-screen Zune HD. This was the best Zune Microsoft ever made, though you might consider that damning with faint praise.

And so my quest continued. When I asked my followers on Twitter if anyone could loan me a Zune HD, I was greeted with mockery. (“You can actually get Spin Doctors on iTunes now, you know,” Tyler Gray noted.) The one guy who admitted to owning a Zune later emailed to say he was mistaken: “I just asked my wife and it turns out she got rid of it.”

That’s pretty much what happened to the Zune at Microsoft, too. The company launched the device with much fanfare in 2006. But the Zune never got past the single digits in market share. (The iPod, meanwhile, still accounts for three-quarters of music-player sales worldwide.) By the summer of 2009, just before Microsoft put out the Zune HD, the device accounted for just 2 percent of the music-player market. The HD garnered good reviews, but it was still a Zune, and it didn’t sell. Microsoft released a slightly upgraded version in 2010, and in 2011, the company announced that it would stop making all Zunes. Zo long, dear friend—we hardly knew ze.

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I finally tracked down a used Zune on Amazon, paying $145 for the 16GB Zune HD with one-day shipping—not a huge amount less than the $220 it sold for new. But it arrived quickly, and I’ve had enough time with the device to draw two conclusions about the Zune. First, it didn’t fail because it was a terrible product. The HD, at least, is a perfectly fine device, in some ways a great one. If you purchased one over the iPod Touch back in 2009, you wouldn’t have regretted it.

Second, the Zune wasn’t as complete a failure as you may believe. The word Zune has become synonymous with corporate humiliation, and given how terribly it sold, that’s probably justified. It’s the tech industry’s Edsel. But what many people don’t know is that Zune sparked much-needed reforms at Microsoft. Along with the Xbox, the Zune project marked one of the company’s first attempts to create innovative hardware and software, not just stuff that looked like it had been ripped off from Apple.

In that sense, the Zune’s spirit lives on. This week, Microsoft is releasing Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, two technologies that it hopes will give it a foothold in the mobile market. These are huge initiatives for the firm. Apple’s iPad is threatening to eclipse sales of Windows PCs, which account for the bulk of Microsoft’s revenue, and these gadgets represent Microsoft’s best shot at slowing Apple’s rise. It’s noteworthy, then, that some of Windows 8’s key innovations were first developed for the Zune. Indeed, to the handful of people who used the Zune HD, Windows 8 and the Surface won’t look all that different. And if Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy works, it will owe a debt to its maligned music player.

I knew that to be the case the moment I cracked open the box of my new (old) Zune: Like the Surface, the Zune HD is very handsome. I use that adjective deliberately. Whereas Apple’s iPod Touch line has long had a curvy, cutesy appeal, the Zune HD’s aesthetic is more masculine, with sharper angles, fewer curves, and a flat, utilitarian, brushed-metal back panel that’s pinned on with four prominent screws. The design isn’t necessarily better than the iPod’s, but it isn’t similar to the iPod’s either. The Zune HD (unlike the first-generation Zune) is Microsoft’s own take on a music player, a design that’s both thoughtful and original.

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