Microsoft's Zune was expected to be the most serious challenger to the iPod-iTunes juggernaut

Microsoft’s Zune was expected to be the most serious challenger to the iPod-iTunes juggernautPhoto: Microsoft

The recent demise of Microsoft’s Zune iPod rival barely registered on the radar. Yet as an example of Microsoft’s failure in the market, the Zune may have a more telling significance, says Seb Janacek.

Recent reports that Microsoft was calling a halt on production of its Zune media player came as a surprise. I thought it had pulled the product years ago.

Launched in 2006, the Zune was expected to be the most serious challenger to the iPod-iTunes juggernaut given Microsoft’s vast R&D resources and marketing.

iPod imitator late to market

Yet, the Zune barely made a dent on the iPod’s lead. It failed because it came so late to the market and looked too much like a simple me-too rip-off.

It had some interesting new features, such as sharing tracks over wi-fi, but it simply lacked the iPod’s cool factor. It came in brown, for goodness sake. However, the key problem is that it arrived five years after the iPod.

As the iPod begins to diminish in importance for Apple and its features start to migrate and converge into other products, the iPad is the rising star.

Apple dominated the MP3 market. Its influence was vital to the company, generating massive revenues and revitalising it. The device also created the vertical iTunes model that endures today in support of its iOS devices.

Apple’s iPad ignites tablet market

Now that the iPad has ignited the tablet computer market, a market that Microsoft tried but failed to spark almost a decade ago, Microsoft is in a similar position to where it was with the Zune – next to nowhere.

However, Apple will not dominate the tablet market in the way it dominated MP3 and media players for the better part of a decade. iPad competitors have been far quicker off the mark. Apple has always proved an agenda setter when it comes to inventing – or reinventing – technology.

Since the success of the iPod, competitors have paid closer attention to the trends it set and are now acting more decisively. With one exception. The prizes are far, far greater in the nascent tablet market, making Redmond’s meaningful absence all the more curious.

It’s interesting to look at the companies in this new market: Apple, RIM and HP for hardware and software, Google for the platform, and a plethora of hardware manufacturers utilising that platform, such as Motorola and Samsung.

Android is Apple’s greatest competitor

Google’s model differs from Apple’s hardware-software model but the search giant’s Android platform is Apple’s greatest competitor. Google’s lead was aided in no small matter by the presence of its CEO on the Apple board for years.

The big difference between the iPod and the iPad is that there is far more at stake with tablets.

Many, including myself, have touted the tablet as the next generation of computing devices both for consumers and for the enterprise.

Bill Gates famously tried, and in a rare occurrence failed, to get…

…the world interested in the tablet platform – long before Apple. However, it took the iPad to convince the market it was worth shouting about.

What are the parallels between the Zune and the iPad? A few weeks before the iPad was revealed, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled a lacklustre range of new tablets running Windows.

Windows as tablet software

A few months after the iPad was announced, Microsoft’s key launch partner HP announced it was deserting Windows on its tablet and switching to the webOS operating system it acquired in its takeover of Palm. Ballmer remained adamant that Windows was the company’s answer to tablet software. Apple, Google, HP and RIM took a different view.

Now Microsoft is on the outside. It has lost ground to Apple, RIM and Google in smartphones. Its new Windows Phone software has won plaudits, and rightly so, but again it is years late and it has taken a gamble on an expensive venture with Nokia to get itself into the game.

The company’s nowhere position in tablets is far more baffling. The mobile market is not traditionally Microsoft’s core business but home and enterprise computing is – the very areas into which tablets are flooding.

With the Zune, Microsoft came too late to market and failed to make inroads into Apple’s dominance.

With the tablet, it is again late to market. Given the emerging importance of the tablet in both the consumer and business market, its failure to act could prove catastrophic.

No firm date for entry into tablet market

Microsoft is still planning on using Windows as its OS for tablets but has no firm date for an entry into the market. It may well be that the third iteration of the iPad, HP’s device and further innovations on the Android platform are brought to market before the company delivers.

Long-time readers of my articles may recall they used to be called Minority Report – a nod to Apple’s tiny share of the desktop market at the time.

A few years later, we had to abandon that title given the revival in Cupertino under Jobs and co.

In a few more years we might consider a column about Microsoft with the same name.