Why I Personally Think the Zune Failed

First and foremost - I am not ashamed to admit that I am a card-carrying Zune fanboy. But that being said, as a faithful owner of several Zune devices, I am ashamed of the way that the Zune team at Microsoft so badly botched their product line; the Zune team was so out of touch with their target consumers that it borders on negligence. Here is my totally-biased list of reasons why I personally think the Zune failed.

My Top 10 Reasons Why the Zune Failed

Reason #1 - Microsoft entered the game with TOO LITTLE TOO LATE

There were a smattering of MP3 players on the market by the time that Apple's iPod hit the stores. I still have an RCA Lyra device that kicked butt in its day, but my personal favorites were the Creative Zen devices; you plugged a Zen player into your computer and it showed up like an external hard drive. To add music, you simply dragged & dropped music files anywhere you wanted; the Zen devices used your music files' metadata to sort by albums, genres, artists, etc.

When Apple's iPod hit the stores, its main rise to fame was its end-to-end story from iTunes to iPod, all of which belonged to Apple. Their devices were cool, and their advertising was stellar (as always). Even though they were overpriced, the iPod soon became "the product" that everyone wanted. The iTunes/iPod integration was closed to outsiders, which meant that Apple owned the end-to-end experience, and thereby collected all of the profits from it.

When Microsoft eventually realized that Apple was making enough money off their music/devices sales to save their company - which was formerly close to bankruptcy - they decided to create a device and end-to-end experience for themselves. But when Microsoft tried to do so, they mostly opted for feature parity with iTunes. What was Microsoft thinking? Instead of improving on the iTunes model, they were trying to break into an established market with a product that had little to offer that was above and beyond what consumers could already get.


Reason #2 - The early Zune end-to-end experience was terrible

I bought my wife a Zune for Christmas when they first released. Having owned and used several MP3 players in the past, I thought that it would be a similar experience; let me assure you, it was decidedly not a similar experience. I was so frustrated with the first-generation Zune software that I had boxed up the Zune and was ready to take it back to the store within an hour of trying to get it set up for her. I eventually elected not to do so, and I managed to get it working, but it was a crappy experience that made me apologize to my non-technical wife for burdening her with such a mess.


Reason #3 - You needed to use the Zune software to put files on the device

Customers wanted to use their Zune devices as external storage, but having to use the Zune software to transfer files to the device prevented that. The prevailing argument was that Zune followed the iTunes/iPod model, but who cares if that's the way that iTunes/iPod worked? Zune customers paid good money for their devices, and they wanted to store files on those. USB flash drives were still pretty pricey at the time, so opening the Zune platform to double as external storage would have been a fantastic selling feature, but that concept escaped the Zune team's leadership because they wanted to force users into having to use their @#$% software in the hopes that they would be tempted to buy more music/videos through Microsoft.


[On a related note, the Windows Phone 7 team did not learn from the Zune's failure, and their devices still had the same, stupid Zune software requirement. BRAIN-DEAD FAIL.]

Reason #4 - You couldn't use Windows Media Player with the the Zune

Microsoft already made a killer media player application for Windows that worked with all the third-party MP3 player devices, but when Microsoft introduced their own MP3 player it didn't work with their existing Windows Media Player.


Reason #5 - Zune Didn't Support Plays For Sure

Microsoft spent a bunch of money cozying up to the music industry and MP3 makers with a program that was entitled Plays For Sure, whereby devices could be certified to play all Windows-based music files, whether they had copy protection on them or not. Even though all of these third-party companies went through the certification process, Microsoft's own player didn't have to; the Zune didn't support Plays for Sure.


[On a related note, this probably hastened the demise of WMA as a file format. SHOOT YOURSELF IN THE FOOT FAIL.]

Reason #6 - The Zune Software for Windows Sucked

For a long time - and I mean a really long time - the software that you needed to use with your Zune was next to worthless. It was slow, buggy, and ugly. By the time that the Zune team finally delivered a version of the Zune software that was actually worth installing, the battle for MP3 player supremacy was over and the iPod ruled uncontested.


Reason #7 - Dropping the free downloads from the Zune Pass

The Zune pass tried to be the Netflix service of music, and in that sense it was ahead of the curve when it was introduced. Customers paid $14.95 a month, and in exchange they were granted free access to tens of thousands of DRM-based WMA music files - all of which they could download and play on their computers or Zune devices - and customers could play them as long as they kept their Zune pass up-to-date. In addition, customers got to keep 10 free songs a month in DRM-free MP3 format per month.

In September, 2011, some wunderkind in the Zune group decided to take away the 10 free songs and drop the price of the Zune pass to $9.99 per month. This person - whoever they may be - is an idiot. With the incredible amount of free music that is available on the Internet now, the free downloads on the Zune pass was the only feature of the Zune pass that made having a Zune pass worthwhile.


Reason #8 - Zune Required Users to Buy Music with 'Points'

The rest of the world works with actual money, but the Zune service required customers to use 'points' to buy music or videos, and points did not map directly to dollars and cents. On Amazon or iTunes, music was typically $0.99 per track, but on Zune it was typically 89 points per track. WTF? What the @#$% was a 'point'?

So let's say that you wanted to buy a music file to download; the Zune software would inform you that had to buy points first, which would have some weird exchange rate that didn't make sense. For example, if you bought 400 points for $4.99, that would mean that your 89-point music file actually cost $1.11, which was $0.12 more than Amazon or iTunes. When Microsoft combined their crappy points-based purchasing system with their overpriced music, they created an environment that was a truly horrible customer experience.


Reason #9 - It Took Too Long to Market Zune Overseas

The iPod was dominating media player sales all over the world, but believe it or not - there are people that simply don't like Apple. I constantly saw people all over Europe that were clamoring for a Zune, and Microsoft didn't deliver.


Reason #10 - No Zune Software for the Mac

Believe it or not, I saw a lot of Mac users who were asking for Zune software on the Mac. I'm not sure if these people were also iTunes users or not, but I think that the concept of the original "10 free songs" with a Zune pass was appealing to them. Sadly, Microsoft did not deliver - and a whole slew of potential customers were left high-and-dry.


In Closing

Despite all this negativism, the Zune team did deliver some great products - I still own several Zunes from the various series of players, although it now feels a lot like owning a Tucker automobile or a Betamax VCR.

Here are some of the coolness factors that Zune had:

  • Wireless Networking - when the first Zunes came out, they were the first players to have wireless networking, which allowed Zune users to share files. I remember at the time that some of my Apple fanboy friends remarked that this was a stupid feature; their usual mantra was: "Who wants networking in a handheld device?" Seriously - I got asked that a lot. Now most every player worth its mettle has Wi-Fi support, as do iPhones, Windows Phones, etc. Zune was well-ahead of the curve.
  • Larger Storage at Cheaper Prices - for many versions of the Zune, you would get the same features in your Zune for a lot less money than a comparable iPod. The Zune didn't catch on, but that certainly wasn't due to price-per-feature.
  • Larger & Better Screens - when the Zune first came out, it's screen was much larger and better than its competitors' screens.
  • HDTV Support - the Zune HD was a great device, and one of the really cool features was output to HDTV from a really tiny device.

In the end, it was very sad for me to see the Zune fail; the Zune was simply a victim of being superior device with inferior product management.

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