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Tuesday March 15, 2011 12:45 am

Zune Death: Why no word from Microsoft?

Zune is Dead

Dear Microsoft: Manage your message or someone will do it for you. Case in point: the recent, none-too-surprising news that the lovely Zune HD will meet a timely death. Within minutes of the news breaking, stories and tweets flooded the Internet declaring, "The Zune is Dead." This was followed by people asking if everything "Zune" was gone or just the hardware. I assured people that the obvious answer was the hardware only, but is it that obvious? And why wasn't Microsoft out in front of this information?

Yes, the fact that Microsoft is giving up on music player hardware is bad news for Microsoft and good news for Apple, but it's up to Microsoft to stand up and explain its decision and strategy. In the absence of clear information from Microsoft, everyone else can and will shape the message. So now, even though most within the industry are quite sure that the Zune software and service, which lives on in phones and PCs, is in no danger, average consumers are no longer certain. They could at this very minute be making plans to switch to Apple, iPods and iTunes.

If I were Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, I would have stepped forward and explained the shift away from music-only hardware (leaving aside the fact that most music players do a whole lot more). Then, while wiping away one single tear, I would have quickly shifted gears to a clear strategy, which isn't even new: "For mobile devices, we're focusing our attention on Windows Phone, which already has Zune and Xbox Live functionality." Then I'd add, "This, friends, is not a loss. Lessons we learned from Zune hardware's five-year life have given us invaluable insight and made it possible for use to deliver the Windows Phone platform and some truly stellar partner-driven hardware to wrap around it."

Microsoft may soon come forward and say something just like this, but the time is quickly passing where people will believe them. As long as stories float around the Internet without Microsoft's point of view, the Zune hardware line will be viewed as a spectacular failure. (To be fair, Microsoft did sell millions of Zunes. One report had the number at 3.2 million in 2009—which was then about 4 percent market share. Surely they sold more since then.)

In fact, Microsoft has more or less said this in the run-up to the Windows Phone launch. Unfortunately, people have very short memories and may not understand that Microsoft moved on months and months ago. Today's "report" is simply reiterating a fact people like our own audio analyst Tim Gideon knew last fall.

Now, I have another idea for Microsoft, and one that could help Zune adherents (those poor, misguided folks) transition from their "one-trick" hardware to something more full-featured and forward-leaning. Offer a $75 trade-in to all existing Zune hardware users that they can apply to a new Windows Phone device. This will be seen as an act of enormous good will, and while the Zune hardware market numbers are unlikely to move mobile market share numbers even a little bit, this small act could build some decent buzz for Windows Phone.

Sadly, Microsoft could also use some of that positive buzz for Windows Phone, too, right now. The nascent mobile platform has, just like the Zune before it, gotten off to a slow start. Yes, I heard that there are now 10,000 apps in the Windows Phone marketplace, but I hesitate to call that momentum. I'm still not seeing enough Windows phones in the wild—more than I ever saw Zunes and Zune HD's mind you, but not enough to create the kind of excitement you see around every Apple iPhone release, rumor, upgrade or random notion.

The company did not do a great job during the recent Windows Phone update fiasco (it's ready, it's not the one we talked about, it's not ready, we don't know, here it comes). That kind of nonsense just makes it seem like Microsoft cannot get its act together. It reminds me a bit of the horrible few months after the Kin 1 and Kin 2 phone launch where we all kept asking how these phones fit in with the soon-to-be-released Windows Phone Platform. The answers weren't good and then the Kin was gone. Microsoft did issue a formal statement back then. It managed the dissolution message okay, but did a horrible job on the launch messaging. The sum, of course, being the same.

At least Microsoft is spending marketing dollars on Windows Phone and, in that way, managing the message. Now, about those Windows tablets…

This article, written by Lance Ulanoff, originally appeared on PCMag.com and is republished on Gear Live with the permission of Ziff Davis, Inc.

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