Space Ramblings

What the Death of the Zune Tells Us About Microsoft

The death of the Zune is not the major story that some outlets are spinning it as. A standalone portable device focused on being a Music/Video player had no future in a marketplace trending toward smartphones. Even Apple knew that. The iTouch is still around, but at some point Apple will probably stop making them. Only Samsung has bothered to make a high profile Android portable player.

The real story isn’t the death of the Zune, but its creation and what it says about Microsoft. The Zune, like Bing, was another example of a good piece of technology coming too late to the ball game. As a media player, the Zune was better than anything Apple had to offer. HD Radio gave it an added bonus. But it had little third party support and its concept was already outdated. The marketplace was app driven, the Zune had few apps. Mobile devices were as much about finding your way around, playing games and checking Facebook, as about playing music. The Zune was great at playing music, it was bad at everything else because it wasn’t designed for those things.

Microsoft has shown that it can turn out good hardware and even good software. But it’s slow and behind the trends. It has the money to copy something popular and improve it, but it’s still a step behind and it’s left with a nicer version of yesterday’s technology for yesterday’s user habits. That’s what the Zune was. It was an iPod killer years too late to matter.

That’s not a great record, but compare it to a trendy tech company like Google, which keeps turning out much worse versions of popular services. Bing may still lag, but it’s not the joke that Google Plus or Google Buzz or Google Wave are, which can only be compared to Microsoft Passport in their intrusiveness, usability and uselessness.

XBox 360 was where Microsoft scored, because it didn’t have a savvy market leader to stomp on it. Sony and Nintendo couldn’t be written off, but they were no Google or Apple. Microsoft could take them on and did. The XBox 360, like the Zune or Bing, was just good enough. It wasn’t a great piece of technology, but it wasn’t going up against great technology or visionary alternatives. The closest to that was the Wii and Microsoft has made sure to jump on any alternative control technology since, so that never happens to it again.

The Zune failed, but it didn’t fail because it was bad, it failed because Apple was pushing too far and too fast ahead to be beaten that way. The day that Apple and Google slow down, is the day that Redmond can catch them with another XBox 360. And as Google splutters, that day might not be too far off

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