The death of Zune

I can say I have owned a Zune for several years and can actually say that I have loved it. I will also say I was way behind the younger generation in getting a MP3 player or iPod.  I was and still am buying my cd’s through the retail channel.  However when I finally got my Zune it was a really enjoyable experience to have my entire collection of music on a 80gb Zune.  Not to mention the process of creating a playlist was so simple, gone were the painstaking days of making a tape (I am dating myself) to impress my then girlfriend, now wife.  These were all things that the Apple crowd had been experiencing for several years with the enormous success of the iPod.  As much as I have enjoyed the Zune, it has struggled mightily in the market.  Unlike “i” everything the term “Zune” has not made it into regular occurence in the English language. Beyond Microsoft employees how many people actually own a Zune?  The answer is pretty simple..not many.  Thus the recent rumors circulating that Microsoft is killing the Zune device (not the software) is somewhere between disappointing and understandable.

If you look back in time at what Zune was competing against, it was in short, up against a product that you could argue saved Apple and shot it into the stratosphere.  The iPod was a cool little device and it was not long before you saw the white headphones nearly everywhere you went, on the bus, at school,camping, even on the Microsoft Redmond campus, never before had I seen competitive products on campus in mass.  Beyond basic technology Apple was able to market it in away that reflected people s lifestyles.  They were colorful.  Microsoft early on was pursuing the traditional MS philosophy that they provide the software and then 3rd party providers would innovate.  The problem is they were not very innovative.  I looked at these devices early on visa vi the iPod.  One spin of the wheel and the argument for the iPod was very simple

When the Zune finally did come out Microsoft’s old Achilles heel came with it, color.  The original came in Black, and Brown.  Not overly exciting.  The executives would often highlight in talks the popularity of brown.  Not to be too cynical here, but really? brown?    The people working at Zune worked hard to play catch up.  I heard through people that the Zune Program Manager’s were logging 80hrs a week for their less than five percent market share.  I admire that they were so committed and worked so hard against a seemingly invincible juggernaut.  But to what end and was that dedication well served?  It’s hard to build a great product, but even harder is to change public perception.  Especially when this category is defined by high school and college students.

There were some good innovations that the Zune should be remembered for and we should be clear the device looks set to die, but the software shall live on.  One of the services constantly highlighted is the Zune Pass.  People who have used it adore it.  It is pretty straight forward.  You pay a monthly subscription fee and then you get access to all the music you want.  The price is minimal at $14.99 per month.  You can use on your Zune, PC or Windows Phone.  You no longer need to worry about purchasing music, you just have access to it.  Despite the imminent demise of the Zune player, it sounds like the Zune Pass will live on.  Which is great as it’s a valuable service.

Moving forward what will Zune look like now that it is becoming a software service.  It raises a lot of questions.  First what will the mobile strategy be for Zune?  Will it be tied to the Microsoft OS or will it be ported to their platforms such as iOS and Android?  What about the Tablet?  Attacking the different form factors will be paramount, but even more important in my opinion will be developing a cohesive mobile strategy.   Having a stronger ad campaign would help.  I have seen colorful iPod Billboards everywhere.  I cannot remember a single Zune ad.  I know U2 supports the iPod.  So do the Beatles.  The Zune…let’s not go there.  It talks to one of the big failing not just of eth Zune, but of Microsoft, which seems to be a lack of advertising that actually connects to people.  It may be shocking to some but people like things that make them feel good.  Having a smart ad campaign can go a long way to making that connection.

The demise of the device seems logical as more and more people move to Smartphones as their all-purpose device.  However even though the growth of the iPod segment is slowing, it is not insignificant.  In the fourth quarter of 2010 19 million iPods were sold, despite a flattening of sales that is a pretty large number.  To walk away, despite Zune’s struggles, in my estimation is a bit premature.  It also seems like Microsoft is falling back to its old mode of. “we are not a hardware provider”.  As I have said before it is really about the whole experience.  Experience combines both software and hardware.  The lines are no longer so simple.

My final say on this is what is music?  Since I first got into music it was always a way of self-expression.  At first it was on a little turn table.  Then it started to be reflected in the clothes I wore.  Then there were concerts.  Friends I got together with as we found common ground in the music we listened to and shared with one another.  This exposed me to new music and new thought.  The idea of a device that would allow me to bring that experience with me and the ability to easily share with new friends is the holy grail.  Technology enables the experience, but it is not the experience.  That rests with you and I.

RIP Zune.

Good Night and Good Luck.

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 20, 2011

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