Yesterday morning, I bagged up one of my most beloved gadgets of yesteryear along with its various accessories and bid them farewell off unto the magical land where “e-waste” goes.
That gadget was a brown Zune 30, from 2006.
The Zune 30, particularly the brown one, was the butt of many a joke around that time. Click Wheel iPods ruled the roost, and Microsoft was trying to break in to the market with goofy, Gen Y-focused ad campaigns around the Zune- their chunky version of the iPod that had wi-fi built in for sharing songs (albeit, under heavy limitations) to friends in the area. And I admit- at launch the Zune was joke-worthy.
The thing used a 4-way controller to navigate when others were utilizing touchpads and scroll wheels, the firmware on the device gave you only the basics, and syncing to the PC was done via a buggy, skinned version of Windows Media Player. The hardware was quite a bit bulkier and much less solidly built than the shiny mirrored iPod Video of the time (though it was less scratch-prone), and despite Microsoft’s best efforts, critics cast the brown version into the long-standing category of failed attempts at good-looking brown portable electronics.
So why the hell did I like this thing?
Well, because it didn’t stay that way. Obviously the hardware didn’t improve over the course of time, but the software did drastically. Over the few years I used it, every piece of the experience got better. The device went from being a standard barebones music-pictures-video player of the mid 2000s to an internet-connected device with great podcast support, a built in content store on the device, a $10/month all-you-can-eat stream/download music plan (much like Spotify is today), and wifi syncing. The UI went from humble and utilitarian to Microsoft’s first mobile foray into the design aesthetic of screen-filling pictures, horizontally-based menus, and big, ultra-light typography that characterizes all of their present day UI offerings. And the desktop software became a chromeless, animated and colorful implementation of those same aesthetics, with intuitive menus that make even the latest version of iTunes feel a little dated.
In short, my experience as a Zune owner radically and frequently improved over the time I owned the device, and I never had to pay Microsoft a penny.
Of course, there are analogues to today’s tech industry wrapped up in this story. Microsoft again find themselves gunning for relevance in fields they didn’t anticipate. Are the people and the conditions in the Microsoft media division that made the Zune’s rapid improvements possible still around? Or did the ultimate failure of the Zune to capture a significant slice of the market and Microsoft’s unwillingness to experiment with other pet projects like the Courier scare those people away? And let’s not forget the end of the Zune story; despite the radical improvements Microsoft made, the Zune never became truly relevant and Microsoft ended up killing the brand. Of course, this time the stakes are much higher, but the question still remains if they can execute and iterate quickly.
Regardless, I’m gonna miss that thing. It’s probably the first electronic product that I truly became invested in, and attached to. Now, Microsoft needs to make products and ecosystems that are worth becoming invested in if they want a worthwhile piece of the pie.
*Side note: I still think the Zune Desktop 3-column view, which consisted a list of artists on the left, followed by album art squares and and finally song names is a more useful way to navigate music than the “big-ass list” approach most modern software uses. Making a selection in any column filtered what you saw in the columns to the right and typing while in a column took you directly to the matching letters in that column.. Fast, visual, and organized hierarchically in a way that made sense.