Well, the social has officially ended. Microsoft has tipped to Bloomberg that the Zune line of hardware products is all but finished, but the name, the media player, and the software line will live on. I reported on this here at Gears and Widgets a while ago when word started to leak out that the death of the Zune may be coming. Now, it seems, it’s finally here:
According to Bloomberg, Microsoft will continue to put its Zune features into Windows Phone 7 and in the Zune desktop software for Windows. Microsoft’s Zune Pass remains an economical way to stream and have access to a large array of music, but the fact that it only runs on Windows devices ruins its potential as a true iTunes competitor.
First thing to note: Microsoft officially refused to comment on the rumor, and claimed that they’re committed to supporting their devices, but they also didn’t do anything to diffuse worry, and didn’t even approach a statement claiming that they would continue to work on the Zune. (Full disclosure: this makes me really sad, because I met an engineer from Microsoft at CES 2010 who worked on the electrical systems that make the OLED display in the Zune so gorgeous. I hope she’s still got a job.)
While a lot of blogs are writing pretty nasty epitaphs for the Zune player, I think that it was a great device in the end that had a lot of unrealized potential. The Zune desktop software and Zune Marketplace for music were both great, the Zune hardware was sleek and attractive – especially as the Zune HD came out, and while I think the Zune started as something of a bad idea and a copycat product to the iPod, it eventually came into its own and was a strong, affordable, and great-sounding music player that any music lover would have been happy to own.
Lance Ulanoff of PC Mag, however, thinks this is emblematic of bigger problems at Microsoft regarding brand control and their desire to let unfavorable products simply die on the vine (a la the Microsoft Kin.) He says:
Dear Microsoft: Manage your message or someone will do it for you. Case in point: the recent, none-too-surprising news that the lovely Zune HD will meet a timely death. Within minutes of the news breaking, stories and tweets flooded the Internet declaring, “The Zune is Dead.” This was followed by people asking if everything “Zune” was gone or just the hardware. I assured people that the obvious answer was the hardware only, but is it that obvious? And why wasn’t Microsoft out in front of this information?
Sadly, Microsoft could also use some of that positive buzz for Windows Phone, too, right now. The nascent mobile platform has, just like the Zune before it, gotten off to a slow start. Yes, I heard that there are now 10,000 apps in the Windows Phone marketplace, but I hesitate to call that momentum. I’m still not seeing enough Windows phones in the wild—more than I ever saw Zunes and Zune HD’s mind you, but not enough to create the kind of excitement you see around every Apple iPhone release, rumor, upgrade or random notion.
The company did not do a great job during the recent Windows Phone update fiasco (it’s ready, it’s not the one we talked about, it’s not ready, we don’t know, here it comes). That kind of nonsense just makes it seem like Microsoft cannot get its act together.
He has an excellent point, and if Microsoft is going to treat Windows Phone 7 the way it’s been treating the Zune and the Kin, they’re in trouble, and we’re in trouble because we’ll lose some decent products in-market and solid competition for other products that are already market leaders.
The Zune was great competition to the iPod, and in some ways the driving force behind larger storage and lower prices that we saw in the iPod, and eventually the abandonment of physical drives in music players entirely: it brought great video to the screen of a simple music player and forced Apple to do the same.
The Zune HD’s only real weakness was a lack of apps and software support by developers to make it a solid competitor to the iPod Touch.
Still, do I own a Zune? Not at all – although I know a few people who do and love them. Most people I know with Zunes loved them when they got them, the problem was getting the Zune into the hands of people to try and enjoy. It was definitely the kind of product that you had to use to love, and once you used it, you loved it. I’m sad to see it go – partially because it’s a great product, but partially because it was the iPod’s only real, solid competition.
At the same time, many people would make the argument that the stand-alone digital media player market is dead or dying anyway: more people want to take their music with them on their phones, and phone storage is getting to be as large as some of these large-screened DAPs with NAND flash storage anyway. If I have a 32GB iPhone, what do I need a 32GB iPod Touch or Zune for?
So here’s to you, Zune – I’ll pour one out for you. Or maybe pick one up on sale, now that I’m betting I can get a good deal on a Zune HD.