Assumptions and Failures: Zune

If you enjoy listening to music, you probably have owned an MP3 player for many years. Nowadays, we can listen to music on our phones, so we don’t need a separate device. I think it’s safe to assume most of us had iPods of some kind before we had iPhones and Androids.

You probably remember the Zune, the portable media player from Microsoft, but might not remember anyone who had one. Zune was discontinued in late 2011, and is still remembered today as one of the largest flops in tech history. So what went wrong?

Back in 2006, Microsoft launched Zune to compete with Apple’s iPod. However, one huge mistake they made was timing. The iPod had already been selling since 2001, and by the time the Zune was released, they had sold well over 100 million iPods.

Bloomberg Television said that between the launch date and mid-2007 only 1.2 million Zune players were sold. In May 2008, Microsoft said that it had sold two million players since its launch. The Wall Street Journal reported that revenue from the Zune player was $85 million during the 2008 holiday season compared to $185 million in the same period in 2007. Apple’s iPod revenue during the last quarter of 2008 was $3.37 billion.

Money problems aside, the Zune had something that the iPod didn’t have, personality. The colorful look of Zune was unique compared to Apple’s minimal and clean look. There really wasn’t anything wrong with how Zune worked. It was durable, charges lasted a long time, and the software was easy to understand. Some would say it was a superior product altogether.

Robbie Bach, the former leader of Microsoft’s home entertainment and mobile business, said they ended up chasing Apple with a product that actually wasn’t a bad product, but it was still a chasing product, and there wasn’t a reason for somebody to say, oh, I have to go out and get that thing.”

They did some really artsy ads that appealed to a very small segment of the music space, and they didn’t captivate the broad segment of music listeners.

This reflection really puts into perspective how important timing is when it comes to products. Had there been more user research, maybe Microsoft wouldn’t have even tried to go against the iPod. If we can learn from the past we can forge a better future through products.