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Zune 3 and 4: A Look Back

I wish I could start off this look back with a sentence like, "After a rough start, Zune won over consumers with its superior hardware, software, and services, relegating Apple and its lackluster iTunes solution to the backburner of history where it belongs." Alas, I cannot. Instead, I must settle for the following: After a rough start, Zune stopped trying to copy Apple and became the most innovative digital media platform of the past decade, with superior hardware, software, and services. Sadly, consumers never understood this, or cared, as Apple's iTunes platform simply surged ahead as if Zune didn't even exist.

And that's too bad.

Hatched as an ego project of a Microsoft fast riser who has since left the company, Zune did indeed get off to a rough start. But over time, Microsoft finally found its groove, first with the Zune PC software in v2, then with the services in v3, and finally with the portable device, the Zune HD, in v4. By then, of course, it was too late.

In fact, one thing most Zune fans don't even realize is that by the time the Zune HD hit the market in late 2009, Microsoft had already given up on the platform internally. It scattered the Zune HD design team, intending to never again create another standalone digital media player. It canned plans for a radical overhaul of the Zune PC software. And it began working towards killing off the Zune brand and replace it with the more popular Xbox brand. That migration is still underway today.

You can see my mixed emotions over this situation most clearly in my multi-part Zune HD review, in which I proclaim each of the platform pieces--the Zune HD hardware, the PC software, and the online services--to be mostly superior to anything Apple offered at the time. And yet, I had doubts about recommending this platform to users, and in a final, originally unplanned conclusion to the review, I explained why Zune, for all its innovation, would never succeed.

For fans of Apple's Macs, this is what it must have felt like 5 or 10 years ago: Convinced they had the superior platform, they couldn't understand why most of the world didn't see it too. That's how I feel, and felt, about Zune. Microsoft did something special there, but then they just let it die. And that's a shame, because the Zune brand, and the Zune products and services, were ultimately pretty darned good. It's just too bad most people will never know this.

This retrospective covers the second half of Zune's lifetime, roughly 2008 through 2010, and encompasses the third and fourth generation of the platform's software, services, and devices. (A previous retrospective covers the first two Zune generations.) As with other such retrospectives, newer articles are at the top.

Zune 4.7 PC Software - October 14, 2010

Zune 4.7 isn't a major update to Microsoft's digital media platform, but it provides Windows Phone support, streaming video capabilities, international support for Zune Marketplace, and other new features.

Xbox Live Update (Late 2010) with Zune Music - September 29, 2010

An upcoming update to the Xbox 360 will add Zune Music, ESPN and other services while bolstering the NXE user interface with a more attractive and more usable new look and feel.

Quick Take: Zune 4.2 PC Software - January 27, 2010

This week, Microsoft surprised its Zune customers with an upgrade to the Zune PC software, bumping the version up to 4.2. Why was this surprising? Well, there are clues in the installer files for Zune 4.2 that Microsoft is about to start supporting some mysterious new hardware devices that might or might not be the fabled Zune Phones.

Zune HD Review, Part 5: The Big Picture - October 9, 2009

In Europe this week for a Microsoft launch event, I've been reflecting on the Zune HD, and while I wasn't originally sure I needed to write a wrap-up of sorts for this multi-part Zune HD review, it occurred to me that some concluding thoughts were in order. I'm of mixed feelings when I consider whether it's a success.

Zune HD Review, Part 4: Zune 4.0 Online Services - October 1, 2009

Microsoft augments the Zune platform with a surprisingly rich range of online services. Today, these services--the Zune Marketplace online store, the Zune Social online community, the web site, and the Zune Pass music subscription service--are supporting players, and optional for the mainstream Zune users who may enjoy the Zune devices and/or the excellent Zune PC software. But that's all going to change.

Zune HD Review, Part 3: Zune HD 16/32 - September 26, 2009

While it may not be perfect, the Zune HD is the real deal, more than just a credible challenger to the iPod hegemony. In fact, with the Zune HD, Microsoft has finally done with its Zune devices what it did long ago with its Zune software: It has created a solution that is palpably and obviously superior to anything "designed in California" by Apple. The Zune HD isn't just competitive with the iPod from a hardware perspective. It's better.

Zune HD Review, Part 2: Zune 4.0 PC Software - September 19, 2009

Zune 4.0 is another evolution of the software that began with Zune 2.0. It features the same basic interface, the same basic media views, the same Zune Marketplace and Zune Social integration, and the same basic device sync, playlist, and disc burning functionality. But as with Windows 7, what Microsoft has done in Zune 4.0 is take something that was good to begin with and just make it better by rethinking the details and getting the fit and finish right. Where Zune 3.x was good or even excellent, Zune 4.0 is superior.

Zune HD Review, Part 1: Hello from Seattle - September 15, 2009

Going forward, Zune will be Microsoft's entertainment services brand, and you will see it appear wherever it makes sense, starting first with the Xbox 360. But that's literally the beginning, and in the future, you can expect to see the Zune brand pop-up all over Microsoft's products. I'm talking Windows. Windows Mobile. Whatever.

Zune 4.0 PC Software Screenshots - September 15, 2009

It's hard to keep up with all the changes coming in the Zune HD wave of products and services, but here's a peek at some of the new functionality in the Zune 4.0 PC software. Like the Zune HD itself, there's a lot going on here, and while the software may look a lot like its predecessor, there are major improvements all around.

Zune HD Hardware Hands-On - September 15, 2009
Zune HD Hardware Hands-On: Compared
Zune HD Hardware Hands-On: Accessories
Zune HD Hardware Hands-On: Unboxing

Here is my first hands-on experience with the latest Zune, in visual style, with links to three photo galleries that detail the Zune device itself, including the unboxing experience, the Zune HD & AV Dock, various Zune HD cases, and then the Zune HD compared to its closest competitor--the latest iPod touch--as well as each previous generation Zune device. It's a Zune-a-rama, done HD style.

Zune HD vs. iPod touch: The Definitive Comparison - September 15, 2009

In preparing my review of the Zune HD, I've found that comparisons with Apple's best-selling iPod touch are inevitable. In fact, they're frequent. Again and again, I've found myself accessing Apple's tech specs for the iPod touch and Microsoft's tech specs for the Zune HD. Why not, I thought, combine them? You know, like two great tastes that go together?

Zune HD Preview - May 27, 2009

Microsoft this week responded to persistent rumors about an upcoming new Zune digital media device called the Zune HD. It's real, the company says, and will ship in the US this fall. But I can be a bit more specific: According to my sources, Zune HD will ship on September 5, 2009.

Quick Take: Zune + Xbox 360 - June 4, 2009

In this Quick Take, I'd like to look at how Microsoft's Zune devices and Xbox 360 video game console can work together, sometimes in unexpected ways. And I'm specifically talking about the hardware devices here: Sure, you can easily share a PC-based Zune media library with your Xbox 360 over a home network. But many might not be aware of the ways in which the hardware devices work together as well.

Zune 3 Review, Part 4: Zune Services - October 19, 2008

Microsoft supports its Zune customers with a surprisingly rich array of services, which include a unique online community called Zune Social, an online store called Zune Marketplace, and a subscription music service called Zune Pass. We'll examine each of these services in this fourth and final part of my Zune 3 review.

Zune 3 Review, Part 3: Zune PC Software - October 5, 2008

If you're familiar with the Zune 2.x software, you'll grok Zune 3 immediately, because they're very similar. But as the third major release of this software, Zune 3 fills in some gaps from previous versions and adds a bunch of new features, many of which are quite useful. In fact, this generation of the Zune platform is most notable for its many software-based improvements.

Zune 3 Review, Part 2: Zune Devices - September 28, 2008

This year, the Zune 4 and 8 are being replaced by the Zune 8 and 16. The Zune 80 is being replaced by a Zune 120. But the only meaningful differences between these devices and last year's models are the storage capacities they offered. Microsoft hasn't changed the hardware form factor one bit.

Zune 3 Review, Part 1: Overview - September 26, 2008

While Apple talks about how much it loves music, the Zune is in fact the better platform for those people who really do love music. That Microsoft was able to steal the higher ground away from Apple so effectively is somewhat amusing, especially when you realize that this sea change has nothing to do with a natural aversion to Apple's market power. It has to do with the fact that Microsoft--and not Apple-- understands how music can and should be a social experience.

Zune 3 Photo Gallery - September 16, 2008

Here are the official Microsoft shots of the 2008 Zune hardware lineup, including some cool new Zune Originals.

Zune 16 Photo Gallery - September 15, 2008

Here are some photos of the new Microsoft Zune 16, the 16 GB flash RAM model, and a few hardware accessories.

Zune 3 PC Software Screenshot Gallery - September 15, 2008

Here are some screenshots of the new Microsoft Zune 3 PC software that Microsoft sent along for your enjoyment.

Zune 120 Photo Gallery - September 12, 2008

Here are some photos of the new Microsoft Zune 120. If you're curious, the first units out of the factory still come with the 2.5 firmware.

Zune 3 Preview - September 11, 2008

Instead of dramatically improving existing devices or adding new device models for its third generation Zune platform, Microsoft is instead revving only the software in a meaningful way. If the Zune device lineup offered some sort of functional parity with what Apple's doing on the other side of the aisle, that would be more understandable. But Microsoft is coming from a vastly outgunned position.

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