Though it’s largely been lost to the fog of history, the inaugural scandal of Barack Obama’s presidency centered not on civilian-drone casualties or the bailout of a slumping economy, but on the incoming commander-in-chief’s Microsoft Zune.
The transgression came in late 2008, just after his election, while his transition team was busy readying the White House and the nation for the promise of hope, change, and cool. An alt-weekly reporter spotted an athleisured Obama on a treadmill in Philadelphia, the cord of his headphones running down to—of all things—a Zune.
“OBAMA ZUNE-ACY,” squawked a New York Post headline. “The president-elect has been spotted listening to the least cool MP3 player on the market,” The Guardian declared. Multiple days of humiliating Zunegate coverage culminated in an advisor’s official ass-covering: An Obama spokesperson claimed that the president-elect typically uses an iPod and, in fact, “did not know where his Zune came from.”
Such was the iPod mania of the mid-aughts. On the eve of the widespread adoption of smartphones, any deviation from Apple’s signature alabaster stethoscope was an embarrassment, tantamount to, say, becoming a Bored Ape guy now. This was an unthinkable sin by Obama, a man whose relatively hip reputation belied a committed establishment streak. (The same could be said about Apple.) On the campaign trail, Obama had bragged about his iPod’s eclectic mix of Jay-Z and Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sheryl Crow. But there he was on that Philly treadmill, in all his dowdy actuality: a president-elect perspiring into the most unlovable MP3 player of all time, the swagless, ne’er-do-well Zune.
Obama recovered, but the Zune never really did. To the extent that the Zune is remembered at all (it was put out of its misery a decade ago this month), it’s usually as a punchline to long-lost cultural ephemera. Zune lives on as an alphabet-ending in-joke for those who were there, a cultural artifact not unlike the short-lived ’90s alcoholic seltzer Zima or, more recently, the failed streaming service Quibi. Even Nathan Webb, the aptronymically named editor of Zunescene.com (which had an implausible 15,500 registered forum members in 2007), admitted that he didn’t have any friends with a Zune. Microsoft, which was reportedly unhappy with the Zune’s levity-inducing appearance in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2, seems it would rather you just forget the whole thing.
A Microsoft product in an era of poptimism
Zune was many things to many people in the five and a half short years it was with us; it was an early streaming service, an inflight playlist provider for United Airlines, a stand-in for a glass slipper in the 2008 Selena Gomez vehicle Another Cinderella Story. But chiefly, it was a half-assed iPod knockoff. By the time Apple introduced its soon-to-be iconic MP3 player in 2001, Microsoft had established more than 90% market share in PC operating systems, in large part through sheer force of its monopolistic business practices. But heavy and uncreative lies the head that wears the crown. Freshly smarting from a sweeping antitrust settlement, Microsoft had grown cautious. With its business-friendly Windows and Office software bringing in nearly 90% of its profit, it was seen as the maker of incremental software updates for corporations presiding over the end of history.
So, when the lumbering tech giant finally awakened from its slumber to the cultural force of the iPod, Apple had burnished its five-year head start into a controlling 75% market share. As its name implies, hardware has never been Microsoft’s strong suit. It had previously dipped its toe into the realm of MP3 players via software licensing, but spent much of the iPod years losing billions on Xbox consoles. The Zune player would struggle to surpass even the entirely forgotten also-ran MP3 players like the SanDisk Sansa and Creative Zen in popularity, and never come close to challenging iPod supremacy. Bill Gates, reeking of senioritis, would claim the low sales were actually still pretty good—since, you know, they hadn’t really been trying. “For something we pulled together in six months, we are very pleased with the satisfaction we got,” he crowed, not entirely believably, after the Zune’s first lackluster year—selling only 1.2 million of them.
Clocking in with a three-inch screen and a signature pastoral brown color, the Zune was far clunkier than any Apple product. (The then-popular iPod Nano, for comparison, had a screen half the size.) Not just an MP3 player, the Zune included an FM radio receiver. It even had a strange proto-Airdrop function that allowed users to wirelessly transfer songs and images to nearby Zunes. (But in keeping with the era’s anti-piracy obsessions, each song could be played only three times before it evaporated into pixel dust.)
Microsoft, for its part, incapable of even advertising its products without oozing clinical business strategy, boasted that song-drop capability would turn Zune users “into [marketing] street teams.” The Zune’s lead designer talked up the product as pioneering “a transition that is not only analog to digital, but digital to connected.” He was right about what was coming, of course, but in an entirely wrong way. Nobody wanted to have Sisqó’s “Thong Song” anonymously airdropped to their screen by the only other Zune on the subway for a handful of preview listens. They wanted to be able to text their friends their running playlist. Jesse Thorn, host of the NPR-station mainstay Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, coined an epithet for the odd feature—”rocket up your Zunehole”—that was surely little used, since so few people had Zunes.
Although it was the subject of much ridicule at the time, the Zune’s terrestrial ungainliness is sort of charming from our present perch of digital oversaturation. While Apple products strove for futurism, seeking to divest themselves of color and any sort of earthly touch, the original Zune looked like a GameBoy made for a garden gnome. It had hints of a flawed humanism, as with its radio feature—which offered continuity with an analog past, albeit via terrible reception. Though Instagram wouldn’t be founded until the Zune was on its way out, the device had some of what Blackbird Spyplane, in a treatise on “un-grammable hang zones,” had called U.G.H.Z. principles: iPods were “torched and soulless,” but the Zune was “frumpy, misshapen, invitingly inelegant.” In our age of algorithmized design, its imperfections are almost zany.
In contrast to Apple’s sleek minimalism, which prefigured the airspace aesthetics that would become synonymous with startup offices and Chipotle stores in the coming decade, Microsoft’s design choices were still wedded to the bulky business boom taste of its ’90s heyday. The original Zune seems made less for the on-the-go listening world that was coming into being, than for sharing a Sneaker Pimps song with your cubicle mate while you wait for a fax to come in. The previous decade’s looks are anathema to the au courant, so many preferred Apple’s onward-and-upward signaling as they ushered in a supposedly post-racial era. Now, when that naive cyber progress has proven isolating and shallow, chintzy devices with limited functionality are increasingly appealing.
But back then, the iPod’s cultural omnipresence should have made it a prime target for anti-mainstream pushback. Could the Zune have become the hipster iPod? Thorn gestured at the possibility, saying he had shirked the iPod in favor of the Zune due to the volume of “self-satisfied people carrying a ubiquitous object.” Comparing it to another decidedly uncool phenomenon that you may not have thought about since 2012, the New York Times called it “the Ron Paul of music players,” owing to its “small but passionate following and just enough of it to remain part of the discussion.”
Microsoft did actually court hipsters in its initial marketing attempts, which “had a big emphasis on alternative marketing, such as its Zune Arts program, consisting primarily of a website—zune-arts.net—featuring short films and music from up-and-coming artists,” according to AdAge. (The first band featured on Zune’s social site was called, fittingly, VHS or Beta.) The company also reportedly flew a bunch of music bloggers out to the Seattle launch and held secret concerts on New York’s Lower East Side and in other cities across the country to promote the device. As Gizmodo’s John Herrman derisively put it, “Kids in skinny jeans, just squirtin’ songs between one another! That was the vision.”
That vision failed in part because the late aughts were a weird period of ascendant poptimism, when many hipsters desperately wanted to be seen as anything but, and in certain culturally influential circles it was becoming fashionable to listen to Top 40 hits on the nation’s most popular consumer electronic device. But more importantly, Microsoft was a poor tool for countercultural reaction. Its computers were far more ubiquitous than any of Apple’s trendy devices, even more corporate, and deeply uncool. If a cultural reaction to the iPod took place, it was probably through the vinyl renaissance, which embraced the analog and the secondhand. It’s only after a decade of iPhone domination and a steady stream of unflattering revelations that the Apple:stylish-Microsoft:evil matrix has begun to erode. Tracking with a popular disillusionment with corporate center-left politics, the public now seems to suspect that—whether they wear the clothes of Clintonion ’90s or the Obama years—tech companies are neither cool nor benevolent.
Instead of leaning into its own identity, Microsoft ran away from most of the Zune’s distinct characteristics almost as soon as it hit stores—dropping its alt marketing, abandoning its famous brown color, making the device sleeker and smaller, and introducing a futuristic “squircle”-shaped touch pad. If it ain’t fixed, keep breakin’ it. Besides blatantly ripping off Apple, the Zune’s most consistent feature throughout its five-year run was its missteps. It managed to have its own Y2K, with all first-generation Zunes freezing for 24 hours at the turn of 2009. Despite endless available options, it went with a name that sounded weirdly close to to zi-yun, Hebrew for fuck. (“While we do acknowledge the similarity in pronunciation,” a squeamish Microsoft statement pleaded, “that is not the intended meaning of the name Zune.”) The computer-focused Zune Music Pass might have been an early leader in the eventually dominant streaming ecosystem, had it been better integrated with the actual Zune device. Zune’s store relied on a cumbersome non-dollar currency called Microsoft Points, and in 2008 had “less than half as many songs as iTunes, one-15th as many TV episodes and no movies at all.” In the era of Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation, Microsoft partnered with McDonalds. Few were lovin’ it.
A simpler time
So why revisit this brief and ineffective candle, long since blown out? None of us need look upon Microsoft’s works and despair. But it’s useful to recall how much contemporaneous writing about the Zune is mottled with words like “gadget” and “gizmos,” an approach to digital culture that is now completely alien. This was a time before the smartphone replaced a rogues’ gallery of electronic contraptions and whizzbangs. Consumer electronics were treated like toys for grownups, and someone with a little disposable income might have owned several. Today, this person probably owns a smartphone loaded up with a bevy of apps, around which their waking life revolves.
But the aughts’ gizmo perspective wasn’t just a reflection of the difference in options—it was also a far more naive and techno-optimistic view than is popular today, when mainstream outlets are better acclimated to interrogating the seismic ways that tech companies are affecting us, and questioning their value as stewards of culture. (The week the Zune was introduced, the Times had the gall to ask: ”Do you really care about having access to the latest Britney Spears track 40 years from now?”)
It’s tempting to smile knowingly while looking back at the Zune years’ giddy fixation with product launches: A simpler time! Were we ever so innocent? Yet the Zune is also a reminder to ask: Of what are we ignorant now?