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Faster Forward
Posted at 06:04 PM ET, 03/14/2011

Microsoft looks like it’s zeroing out the Zune

If Microsoft’s Zune went on a farewell tour, would anybody show up? We may be finding out. An article by Bloomberg’s Dina Bass cites “a person familiar with the decision” to report that the company won’t introduce any new versions of the media player to replace the Zune HD it debuted in September of 2009.

The long lag alone should suggest the Zune’s fading role in Microsoft’s mobile devices. Leaving a device in the electronics market for one and a half years unaltered, with only a price cut and a storage increase to distinguish it from newer competitors, invites its irrelevance.

Then there’s the statement forwarded by Microsoft publicist Lucas Westcoat, which begins, “We have nothing to announce about another Zune device.” That’s not how you lead off a defense of a platform.

The statement goes on to note “consumer excitement for Zune across many new platforms, including Windows Phone 7 and Xbox 360”--in other words, the standalone media player doesn’t seem to have a future at Microsoft when smartphones and other gadgets can do its job in one place or another.

Fair enough: The same thing seems to be happening with Apple’s iPods, which now have to earn a spot in people’s pockets and purses alongside smartphones that can double as media players.

But if Microsoft really is giving up on the Zune, that will mark the company’s latest failure in the market for what we once called “MP3 players,” following such earlier flops as heavy, awkward “Portable Media Centers,” and the “PlaysForSure” standard for third-party devices.

The first Zune did not make much of a name for itself when it arrived in 2006, thanks in part to its complete incompatibility with Microsoft’s earlier ventures into digital music. But a second generation of smaller, lighter models in 2007--with less sluggish desktop software and an upgraded Zune Marketplace online--helped its cause. And in 2009 Microsoft debuted the improved Zune HD, with an elegant touchscreen interface, a Web browser and an HD Radio receiver to tune in extra, digital-only channels.

And then, nothing. Sales never took off; I can only recall one day in which I saw two Zunes in use in the wild, outside of tech-industry settings.

The Zune HD’s interface lives on in Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 operating system; for that matter, you can’t even sync photos, music, and videos to a WP7 device without running the Zune desktop program. (Presumably, Microsoft will have to give the Zune application a new name--perhaps something like the “Windows Phone 7 Connector” moniker it adopted for its new Mac sync software.)

It’s customary in gadget obituaries to invite users of the deceased or nearly-deceased device to testify about their experience. I’m not sure that will happen now--but if there are any Zune owners out there, I’d like to hear from you.

By  |  06:04 PM ET, 03/14/2011

 
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