What is Zune? Remembering Microsoft's Forgotten iPod Competitor

By James O Malley on at

It’s November 2006. George W Bush is President of America, Richard Hammond is recovering from crashing his rocket car, and Apple’s iPod is reigning supreme, having sent shockwaves through the music industry.

And Microsoft was worried. Apple had gone from critical condition in the mid-90s to the hottest tech company in the world thanks to its nifty new handheld. The technological headwinds were clear: Microsoft needed something to take on Apple in this new category. This something, it turns out, was the Zune.

Days after the Playstation 3 was released, on November 14th 2006, Microsoft launched its new handheld music player - to a bemused world. Could it really take on the iPod behemoth?

What was the Zune?

The Zune 30 was Microsoft’s first device. Weighing 158.8g it sported a 3” colour screen (an important distinction at that time) which ran at 320x240 (yes, 240p). It was controlled not with a touchscreen, but with a mechanical click-wheel - just like the iPod. Inside was a 30GB hard disk - which felt pretty massive at the time.

Like the 4th generation iPods from around the same time, it too was capable of playing video on the device, as well as displaying photos and of course playing music. So far, it was matching the iPod toe-for-toe.

But what was also cool about the Zune - in concept, if not execution - were the extra features. The device contained a built in FM radio (remember those?), and it even had built in support for RDS - like a car radio, so you could see what station you were listening to or what track was playing.

It could output video via RGB, for getting those 240p videos on to a bigger screen. And in what was a relatively revolutionary move at the time - it had wifi. This wifi - using what would today be an achingly slow 802.11b/g connection - could be used to sync songs with a computer, download direct from the Zune marketplace, or even transfer songs between Zunes. If you sent a song to a friend, they could listen up to 3 times in 3 days, before the song would be deleted.

The wifi could also be used by two Zune owners to connect together and play multiplayer games - but in reality, you literally never encountered anyone who owns a Zune.

There was just one problem: A massive software bug. The internal clock software on the original devices couldn’t handle leap years correctly, so that on 31st December 2008, thousands of users found their devices inoperable for 24 hours, until the year moved on. Microsoft eventually offered a fix.

Later hardware revisions iterated on this original design: The second generation devices, released in 2007, switched out the hard disk for now standard flash memory. The third generation boosted storage capacities to a massive 120gb (as a HDD, not SSD), and the fourth generation, “Zune HD” started to look thoroughly modern, as it added a touch screen.

Microsoft envisaged Zune as a brand that extended beyond the device: Microsoft’s digital music store was named the Zune store, and the store was made accessible on Xbox 360. The media player on Windows Phone was also called the Zune player, for a time.

Sales-wise, Zune wasn’t a complete disaster. Sales started reasonably strong when the device was first released. At the time, Microsoft announced that it intended to sell 1m units in the launch window. But by the end of 2008, the allure of the brand was clearly starting to wane as revenues fell. Zune had around a 4% market share, while the iPod had an enormous 71%. Apple simply dominated the competition.

It did have some devoted fans though. One guy even got a Zune tattoo.

The Death of the Zune Brand

In 2012, the Zune reached the end of the road as Microsoft gave up on trying to make a device that could compete with the iPod. This is perhaps unsurprising - as by then the iPhone had already taken over the world, rendering a mere music player redundant.

So Microsoft pulled the plug - and with it gave up on Zune hardware. There were rumours of a ZunePhone to compete with the iPhone but Microsoft never released anything. And as a final indignity, Microsoft dropped the “Zune” name entirely, favouring Xbox as its entertainment content brand instead.

Zune’s Legacy

So Zune is dead - but did it make an impact? Though short-lived, the device was perhaps a crucial part of Microsoft’s growth into the company it is today. As Slate argued in 2012, Zune may have even helped “revive” the company. It gave Microsoft a (small) foothold in mobile, and the Zune interface contained the germs of the interface used in Windows Phone.

Amazing, the Zune brand did struggle on until September 2015, when Microsoft finally forced the remaining users of Zune Music Pass to get with the slightly-later-on 21st century.

And that… is Zune. It may not have set the world on fire, but for one brief moment it gave owners a glimpse of the future.

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