Illustration: Ben Ruby

Zune Forever: The Diehards Still Obsessed With Microsoft’s Colossal Failure

2017: A Zune Odyssey

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May 11 2017, 2:00pm

Illustration: Ben Ruby

It's hard to forget the Zune. After all, Microsoft's mid-2000s bid to sink the iPod with an MP3 player of its own was notable for its immense thirst.

The Zune, which was clunkier than the iPod and came in black, white, pink, and putrid shit-brown, desperately wanted to be cool. Unluckily, at the time of the Zune's release in 2006, Apple also began airing its "Get a Mac" ads, which cast Microsoft as terminally lame. Still, anti-Apple sentiment was strong even then among the nerds, and so the Zune was an underdog. Microsoft tried to capitalize on this, and counter Apple's messaging, with its own "edgy" ads and stunts like sponsoring a VICE event in Toronto.

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It didn't work. The writing was on the wall for the Zune as early as 2008, as stores pulled it from shelves and revenues dipped. In 2010, the final model was released, the Zune HD, and in 2012, it was discontinued. The software was abandoned in 2015. Apple won the war and barely broke a sweat.

Recently, I became fixated on the idea of someone using a Zune in 2017, which I found absolutely hilarious for reasons even I don't fully understand. What must it be like? Does the modern-day Zune owner feel like a gadget-toting John the Baptist in a desert of Apple products, vaping and sermonizing on Radiohead? I lit the bat signal on Twitter: Zune owners, come forward, if you're out there. To my surprise, my inbox was soon filled with emails from people who claim to still use, and love, their Zunes. So, I called them.

Almost everybody had a different reason for getting one, and for hanging on to it. For some, it was the features—you could share tunes with friends, subscribe to a Spotify-like music service, and it could be synced wirelessly (all features the iPod lacked)—and for others, it was simple hatred of Apple. Some kept their Zunes for those same reasons, or the connection is now sentimental. For others, the app-less Zune is a sanctuary from endless smartphone notifications.

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Ryan Bordner
27, IT
Spokane, Washington
I have a Zune in my car that sits on the USB cable and when you turn the car on, it automatically plays. I have [another] one in a dock in my room that has a remote. And when I go on a bike ride, I have a tiny Zune that I put in my pocket and I don't really care if I drop it. I use one for every need. I don't think I'll ever switch because I have the arsenal to future-proof myself. Like, oh, here's another Zune for cheap, so I might as well buy it just in case one breaks.

Gretchen Lilly
36, elementary school counselor
Kirkland, Washington
Sometimes I just want to listen to music and not be interrupted with things that are going on on my phone. It's unplugging, in a way. I like to go for long walks when the weather is nice. There's something nice about, like, I'm just leaving my phone at home and I'm listening to music or a podcast on my Zune, and I'm not being interrupted by other aspects of technology.

Photo: Gretchen Lilly

Jamey Harris
40, engineer
Orlando, Florida
If my Zune breaks, definitely look for another Zune first. The thing is, with your phone, if you download an app like Spotify, they're asking for access to data on your phone, it's connected to the internet, and they track your location, which they sell to third-party vendors. But the Zune isn't connected to the internet at all, and what I like about the Zune is the privacy element.

Vanyel Harkema
23, game design student
San Francisco, California
I had a 40GB Zune back in high school, and it got eaten up by the chain of my motorcycle in a freak accident. When I graduated, I found out that they stopped making them, so I had to go to eBay and that's where I got my custom blue Zune. I'm the only one [of my friends] who owns one now. Sometimes the reaction is, "What's a Zune?" or, "Of course you have one, you were built by Microsoft." I think that a lot of younger people still kind of what they are, and they haven't totally faded out of public consciousness.

Mary Branscombe
Age undisclosed, freelance writer
London, UK
I still use my Zune HD for a few reasons—one being that I loathe iTunes with the passion of every sun in the known universe. I vastly prefer the Zune device user interface to the iPod user interface in any iteration later than the original iPod nano. I don't need it to be updated because a good interface for playing music continues to be a good interface for playing music.

Photo: Sean Davison

Sean Davison
44, CAD drafter
San Francisco Bay Area, US
I've been asked a couple times on the ferry. Someone's like, "What's that?" and I'm like, "It's my Zune!" They say, "Really?" and that's it. No big deal! People have questions but they keep them to themselves I guess. They might look at me and think, "This guy's a dinosaur, what's wrong with this guy?" But it's a convenience thing, I'm telling you. The software still works. They haven't updated it, but it still works. If it works, I just keep using it.

JP Accetta
Age undisclosed, medical student
Miami, Florida
The music on my iPhone is always changing, and I use Spotify. But on my Zune, it's the music I've had forever, and it's never going to change. I have a lot of old music that's never going to be deleted. There's a lot of music I put in here forever ago—maybe I backed it up on a hard drive—but it's not in the cloud, and it's not on my computer. It's just here.

Photo: Jordan McMahon

Jordan McMahon
25, personal trainer
Tucson, Arizona
I actually woke up the other day to a message from a friend. In my senior year of high school, I did a video of the teachers saying goodbye, and she asked which songs I used. So, I charged my Zune for the first time in months, and I found it. I can use it as a time capsule, and look back and say, this is what I used to listen to. Just nostalgia, for late night drives, that kind of thing.

Luke Boyer
30, environmental management
Indiana, US
I got my Zune in 2005. My girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife, bought it for me as a present. I really wasn't a big fan of Apple, so I was open to other possibilities. I have used it consistently since then. I'm dreading the day my Zune breaks, and I keep putting off that thought. I'm hoping to never have to address that. I would've thought that the battery would be dead by now, so I'm sure its days are numbered. I'll probably see if I can get a replacement Zune online. It's been so good for 12 years, and it's hard to beat that.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for content and clarity.

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