Every once in a while the Microsoft news world (us included) goes into a tizzy over the imminent death of Zune, the entertainment platform that initially launched around an MP3 competitor designed to take on Apple's iPod, and that has since gone on to become the brand and software music experiences found inside the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 7.
The reasoning behind these arguments typically centers around a combination of sales, device iteration, and software updates. The MP3 player never quite went on to offer the iPod a challenge in market share as Microsoft had seemingly intended when the product was first announced.
What happened instead (and what Microsoft has been happy to point out), is that Zune has grown to be bigger than a single device. It's turned into a platform, and an idea that, much like the ill-fated PlaysForSure DRM initiative (which the Zune helped kill off), means you have a single ecosystem with multiple devices that will work in harmony as long as you stay within its walls.
But murmurs around that ecosystem's identity being killed off have slowly begun to pick up again with reports that suggest Microsoft plans to nix the branding, as well as move some of the Zune components into other parts of the company.
"My sources tell me that the Zune brand is on the way out and that all Zune products and services will be moved into other businesses, including Windows Live," wrote longtime Microsoft follower Paul Thurrott in a post on Monday. "Zune will essentially cease to exist under this plan," he said.
A Microsoft representative denied such claims to ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley, saying:
"We're not 'killing' any of the Zune services/features in any way. Microsoft remains committed to providing a great music and video experience from Zune on platforms such as Xbox Live, Windows-based PCs, Zune devices and Windows Phone 7, as well as integration with Bing and MSN."
One of the items that had fueled the rumor fire was heaped on during last week's announcement by Microsoft that it was joining forces with Nokia as part of a strategic partnership that would see the two companies working together on future devices. Missing from a slide about how Microsoft and Nokia's collaboration would extend the two companies' global reach were any mentions of Zune ecosystem among the sea of the company's brands and services.
One slide is not be enough to start a death countdown though, or at least it shouldn't be given consideration to the role the software and platform itself still plays within the company's current lineup of products.
Take for instance Windows Phone 7, which is the latest device to be given the Zune treatment. When Microsoft eventually rolls out its first system software update for it next month it's going to need to be done through the Zune software. Mac users, on the other hand, will be able to use the Windows Phone 7 Connector software, which Microsoft made as a go-between for iTunes users.
The prospect gets a bit more murky on the Xbox side of things. Zune has existed there simply as a rebrand of a service that had existed before, with a content lineup that mirrors what's available on the PC side, including the subscription music service. Microsoft wasn't afraid to change it around that first time, but risks confusing users by changing monikers yet again.
As for the device itself, the Zune hardware hasn't been given a refresh since September of 2009 and is unlikely to see another, with development on the player software being honed for phones instead. In that regard, it may be the right time to give the platform a rebranding to decouple it from the connotation of a device that is no longer getting the company's attention. The real question is where the pieces will land if and when that happens.