The Zune Is Dead (Yup, They Still Made Them)

According to reports, the Zune, at least the hardware, will no longer continue. Some people (either seriously or in jest) wondered if the Zune was still around. Microsoft, and some analysts, seemed convinced that the Zune would give the iPod a run for it’s money. A lot of the discussion focused on the superior technology in the Zune, offering support for things like wireless synchronization, and the lower price. Personally, I didn’t think it had a chance. Why did the Zune fail? Why is the iPod still the leader in portable multimedia playback, particularly when there are cheaper and more advanced alternatives?

Simple: it’s the ecosystem. The iPod Classic, iPod Nano and “playback-only” iPods have easy access to millions of songs, movies and TV shows. The iPod Touch is, in some ways, one of the first real “tablets”, albeit a small one, with access to all the content that the playback-only machine have, plus an enormous number of apps. The Zune HD was a case of “not getting it”, when it didn’t run some form of Windows Mobile to have access to apps. Microsoft seemed to think that the iPod Touch was primarily about music and video, and completely overlooked the apps (particularly games). Yes, the iPod had a certain cachet, and it was cool, but you don’t sell tens of millions of units, and thoroughly dominate entire markets by just being “cool” and “hip”. If that were the case, the Ford F-150 wouldn’t be the best selling vehicle in North America for the past 35 years, and the Toyota Camry wouldn’t be the best-selling family sedan.

Is there a lesson here? First, it isn’t enough to be technologically better or cheaper. You have to be at least as good, or ideally better, and better in a way that matters to customers. Look at smartphones: Android has done as well as it has because it has a decent selection of apps (smaller than iOS, but still measured in the hundreds of thousands) and provides people access to media. On top of that, you have some choice (with or without keyboards, different sizes) and a selection of prices. Tablets will likely go the same way, with the iPad holding a healthy chunk of the market, but Android-based tablets doing as well or better because they are “good enough” and have enough of an ecosystem to make the useful and compelling. Playbook (from RIM) and TouchPad (from HP) may be technologically superior to the iPad and some Android tablets, but without the ecosystem, they will have a hard time in the market.

In the end, success is about providing what your customers want. When it comes to mobile technology, it isn’t just about the hardware specs or even the software environment. It’s about the ecosystem, and until companies like Microsoft, HP and RIM figure that out and fix it, Android and iOS will rule the market, just like iPod made the Zune (and others like it) marginal players in that market.