End Of The Road For Zune MP3 Players

Microsoft appears to be killing off the hardware side of the Zune line. The Zune HD will continue to be sold, but there are no plans for a new model.

Ed Hansberry, Contributor

March 16, 2011

4 Min Read

Microsoft appears to be killing off the hardware side of the Zune line. The Zune HD will continue to be sold, but there are no plans for a new model.Microsoft launched the Zune MP3 player in 2006. After years of getting nowhere against the iPod juggernaut with its Plays-For-Sure partnerships with companies like Creative Labs, Samsung, Sandisk and more Microsoft decided to create its own player. It had some innovative features like built in WiFi in every model which allowed you to sync with your computer wirelessly or download music and video from the Zune Marketplace. You could also squirt a DRM protected song to a friend with a Zune and they could listen to it three times before it self destructed, though that feature was removed when the Zune HD came out. Every device also comes with FM radio and the Zune HD supports HD radio, though few cities have it and even fewer consumers care.

All of this was before Apple integrated any of those features. To this day it has yet to include some of them in their dedicated MP3 players like the Nano and Classic.

The Zune experience was also superior to the basic iPod in several areas. You can create an ad hoc playlist in seconds by selecting some music and selecting "Add to now playing" from the context menu. It is like a one time playlist for whatever you are in the mood for. It is also more intelligent about podcasts. For example, once you start a podcast, the Zune will play every available episode for that podcast in order. My 6th generation iPod Nano just received that feature about a week ago when it was upgraded to 1.1. The Zune also understood that if you quit a lengthy podcast 2-3 minutes from the end, you were done and just skipping the credits. Once docked, the Zune desktop software would remove it from the device. iTunes still thinks you have a few minutes left and won't remove it until you get to the very end or manually mark it as played.

It isn't superior in every way though. I like the iPod's ability to rearrange a playlist on the device for example, or interface with Nike pedometers. Even though the Zunes all had WiFi, they couldn't go online and accept WiFi terms of service because they lacked a browser, even in the top of the line Zune HD, something the iPod Touch easily gets around. From a hardware standpoint, the iPod was always a year ahead in style, size and finish as well. Don't forget that Apple has the reputation of being the consumer electronics company when it comes to MP3 players, tablets and phones. When everyone hears "Apple" and it is time to buy a device, they go for what they have heard of, not what may be better for their needs.

One of the more appealing features of the Zune is the subscription feature. For $14.99 per month, you could download almost any song from the marketplace and listen to it. As long as your subscription remained active, the music would play. On top of that, you could keep ten songs per month permanently, so you were really buying ten songs a month and paying about $5 for unlimited content. Not a bad deal.

Of course, all of that lives on in other devices. If you have a Zune MP3 player, everything should be fine until your battery dies. Windows Phone 7 and Xbox have Zune features built in, so from that standpoint, Zune software still has a long life ahead of it.

Microsoft never really marketed the Zune though. I remember seeing web advertising for it, but never on TV and it never launched worldwide. Being limited to one continent will kill most consumer electronics if there is a global competitor. Bloomberg is saying that is exactly what happened. It

Choice is good, but you really have no choice today when it comes to MP3 players. You either use an iPod or you use something that might as well be a no-name brand. It is too bad Microsoft didn't advertise it heavier or push into international markets. Part of it though may be the world has changed and a dedicated MP3 player isn't a must-have anymore. Small devices are good for those that exercise, but for everyone else, a phone is small enough and everyone has a phone. That is where Microsoft is putting its advertising muscle, as well as the Zune music core - Windows Phone 7. Tablets have also come onto the scene and even the Kindle has limited MP3 playing capability. Most people just don't need to carry a dedicated MP3 player anymore.

I just hope Apple continues to make Nano sized devices until someone figures out a way to make a phone small enough to fit on my arm and not bother me when running yet large enough to use as a smartphone. I am not sure that is physically possible though.

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