RETRO: Microsoft Retires the Zune, Finally

On November 15, 2015, Microsoft made the decision to finally retire all Zune-related services. This announcement comes long after the decision to retire the Zune hardware itself in October 2011, with the urging for users to transition to Windows Phones.

Maybe our readers might have a more pressing question, though: what the heck is the Zune? You might have heard of it, but it’s just as likely that it flew directly under your radar, being that its popularity peaked nearly a decade ago and it existed solely as an obscure Microsoft-branded counterpart in an already niche market. Like Icarus, Microsoft tried to fly on wings of feathers and wax; unlike Icarus, they simply crashed into the sea.

After the jump, we’ll get into a brief history of the Zune and exactly why it failed as it did.

What is it?

The first Zune model was released in November 2006. Retroactively named the Zune 30 for its 30 gigabytes of data, it was Microsoft’s attempt to take on the Apple line of iPod products.

Apple’s smallest model at the time, the second-generation iPod Shuffle, had been released merely months prior. Though larger players were still popular, the market was nevertheless pushing further and further towards more compact, sleek designs.
The Zune went against all of those design decisions: it was a behemoth, comparatively. The decision to give it a smaller click wheel gave it room for an enormous screen. It originally sold at a retail price of $249.99, directly competing with the fifth-generation iPod Classic.

It took until November 2007, a whole year later, for them to release a smaller budget model. The second-generation Zune came in three different storage sizes, referred to as the Zune 4, 8, and 16, but they were all functionally identical otherwise. It bears mentioning that although they were cheap at the time, the Zune 16 still sold for $159.99 at release: only a third cheaper, despite being half the storage space of the original.

Why is it?

The Zune wanted, desperately, to mark the transition of an era. No longer would Apple have to rule the market with its itty-bitty music players, because now Microsoft had a foot in the door. In many ways, it seemed that they were desperately emulating the success of the Xbox: infiltrating a seemingly-closed market by producing a functionally-identical but larger and kludgier product, and then branding it aggressively towards millennial men with fragile egos? It just might work!

It didn’t, though.

Microsoft spent a paltry $9 million dollars (2,250,000 Chicken McNuggets) in advertising money during the Zune’s first year, compared to Apple’s staggering $200 million dollar (50,000,000 Chicken McNuggets) yearly budget that they used to fund the legendary iPod silhouette advertisements. The result was underwhelming, to say the least. During launch week, the Zune was the second-most-sold digital audio player in the market at the time. This would have been a big deal if that ratio had ever gone over 10% to the iPod’s 63%.

Dedicated people within the market demographic were usually quick to say that the Zune was worth it despite all factors, since it was a relatively affordable alternative to Apple at a time where tension against Apple was at its highest. Not everyone in the world wanted music players the size of a postage stamp with equivalently large storage space, and a burgeoning audiophile movement had begun.
Though the Zune didn’t particularly appeal to the sort of person who would gladly spend thousands of dollars on audio cables for home listening, it still was a cheap appeal for the easily-convinced layperson who might have already had a bias against Apple.

A minor, practically microscopic rift formed between Zune loyalists and iPod users. At the time, the iPod was simply the best MP3 player on the market, not just because it was good in any way but because it had millions of dollars spent on advertising and could be found in even the most barren of towns. The Zune was an easy predator for people who already might have felt threatened by Apple’s monolithic presence, and it gave kids an easy way to act countercultural while ultimately doing nothing and still contributing to the market.

On the flipside, it ended up making things much worse for everyone involved, because the Zune’s marketing approach was scoff-worthy and comparatively dated. The iPod was sleek and always updating itself to stay relevant, but the Zune was a relic of turn-of-the-century ideas, awkward and geometrical and trying a little too hard to be the Xbox. A common complaint was that the logo was obtuse; it ‘clearly’ depicts the “Z” in Zune, but much like the Fedex logo, it was hard to understand and only made people angry.

After the fact…

The result of this campaign was quietly catastrophic in a way that could have only been processed by looking at it in retrospect. The surviving few that consciously and deliberately used the Zune after its initial hype were ‘hipsters’; either they acknowledged that it was horrible, or they just craved something that got them away from having to acknowledge Apple’s corporatism.

The Zune primarily failed due to Microsoft’s reluctance to commit money to it, but Apple diehards would insist that it was because the Zune was doomed to fail from the start. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, but the decisions made were roughly equivalent to playing dead until everyone went away.

With no competitors left, Apple engulfed the rest of the market, leaving hipsters with no choice but to move on to smartphones. It’s not hard to see why. With headphone jacks, the capability to play music, and much larger storage, phones meet all the basic requirements for a good media player. Add on all the functionality of a phone, all the web-browsing capabilities of a laptop, and the ability to play apps on the go: phones really have it all, and they’re much cheaper and easier to buy secondhand, with more reliable customer service and less fear of buying a product that will get bricked within the first month of usage.

That said, we wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a certain degree of sentimental value still left in the idea of carrying in your pocket what amounted to a portable flash drive with speakers.

And why? What’s so appealing about a brick that doesn’t do anything other than sing to you? It’s hard to estimate these days, but back then, it was a status symbol. The act of liking and consuming music was self-defining, much more than it is now, because music was all-encompassing for a culture that had hardware dedicated just to listening to it.
People still listen to music, and that’s not going to stop any time soon. But the decline can be traced to the iPhone, which singlehandedly replaced the iPod with better and more capable technology, pushing the focus onto Wi-Fi usage. On top of that, the success of streaming websites pressurized a need for constant and steady internet.

Now, the world of internet music is wild indeed: it’s much cheaper for independent bands to distribute their media (especially with distribution websites like Bandcamp), for one thing, and it’s easier to share things that you like with your friends when they don’t have to go into a store and purchase a physical album. Instead of bands with fanbases of dedicated people who would often hoard their music like a jealous secret, now the market is fresh and oversaturated.

The smartphone was what we needed, but maybe not what we wanted. We’ll just have to see where the world takes us. So rest in peace, Zune, and thank you for ultimately representing nothing but a futile fight against an already-dying medium.

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