R.I.P. Zune: The Media Player We All Loved, But Never Used

The Zune was a really good media player that should have been a success. Except it was always late to the party. A party full of white earbud wearers who left the Zune to die alone.

The streak of forward-thinking designs Microsoft has been on lately really started with the Zune. Looking at the different UIs housed within the also-ran music player over its lifespan, you can see so many of Redmond’s best ideas in their nascent forms: attractive fonts, smooth animations, and the first inklings of the multi-pane design that makes WP7 so beautiful were all there.

Say what you want about the crap-coloured outsides of the original Zune, it contained the first Microsoft software I was genuinely excited about since Windows 95. It was stylish and fluid, but most importantly, it was easy for anyone to pick up and use. It had some wi-fi enabled sharing features that were ahead of its time. They even had a dedicated fanboy. It made the iPod look downright primitive.

But then Apple delivered the iPod touch. We saw the touchscreen future and forgot all about Microsoft’s baby. Slick as it was, it was the past.

Zune’s second act began with the introduction of (duh) Zune 2 — you know, the one with the distinctive Squircle touchpad. An impressive chunk of a media player, this new Zune rivaled (or even bested) the iPod line in performance and build quality. But as a flagship device, it was obsolete before it even reached the hands of customers. We really wanted a touchscreen.

For the next couple of years, the Zune quietly meandered along, slowly tweaking and improving itself. It became a handsome, minimal combination of matte metal and glass. Microsoft introduced a smaller, thinner Zune to compete with the iPod nano. Then came the Zune Pass, which was a very awesome, but ultimately limited, subscription music service. I would have totally bought this Zune over the iPod if it were 2005. Or even 2006.

But this was late in 2008. Even Zune Guy was fed up.

That was just fantasy. The reality was, that being a Mac user, I couldn’t have used a Zune as my go-to media player even if I wanted to. Limited to syncing only with Windows PCs, it always seemed like a bad move on Microsoft’s part for getting people to use the thing. Yes, Microsoft’s strategists could point at the number of people using Windows versus the number of people using OS X and Linux to support its decision, but the fact is that they aggressively targeted the Zune at a crowd of cool kids who they thought would serve as their early adopters. The only problem is that all those kids were using MacBooks.

In the summer of 2009, nearly two years after the debut of the iPod touch, the Zune HD arrived. It was thin and well-designed and felt solid as a tank in your hand. It had impressive NVIDIA Tegra-powered guts. And a multitouch display to go with a solid, if not quite amazing, web browser. But where were the apps? Ugh, not again.

Since then, we’ve heard little from the Zune brand — until now. Zune is dead. Its UI lives on in Windows Phone 7 devices everywhere, and despite its critical love, it will be remembered more as a commercial failure with the world’s most annoying viral ad campaign. R.I.P.