Back in 2006 when rumors first started flying about what would eventually be called Zune, I wrote that Microsoft should leverage the Xbox brand for a line of music and media players. Even six years ago, Xbox had already become a globally recognized digital-media brand, one that was free of all the baggage of Windows and Microsoft and the implications of those legacy brands.
Well, we all know what happened instead. Robbie Bach and his team decided to forge a greenfield strategy using a new brand in Zune, figuring that by throwing tons of marketing dollars at building a new brand for their music efforts, they could create a legitimate alternative to the iPod-iTunes juggernaut.
In retrospect, that was all kinds of crazy. Why? Because while Microsoft felt that its market power and nearly infinite resources would make it easy, it was clear that in the digital media market, it’s practically impossible to capture a significant share of a market using a strategy that doesn’t offer a significant benefit to switch or leverage an existing platform that has a large and engaged user base.
Neither Zune’s line of players or music service were ever that enticing. Sure, Zune fanboys (all 10 of them) would argue the interface was a nice departure from that of iPods, and many were excited about the Zune wireless sharing feature. But in the end, it was too little to entice most to switch from their iPods.
It was easy to foresee that unless Microsoft created something truly different in Zune (it didn’t), the best strategy then (and now) was to build on the strength it had in Xbox. But is it too late in 2012 to expect Xbox Music to be a significant player? Probably not. But Microsoft’s plans at this point are probably beyond music. After all, music is a feature in the larger battle to become the center of consumers’ digital entertainment lives, one that now includes online video, music, social media, and, yes, gaming.
Those lives also include tablets, apps, and smartphones — the hugely important second screen. That means the success of Xbox music will no longer depend on the Xbox game console itself. Instead it is more dependent on what Microsoft does with its overall mobile strategy, especially the forthcoming Surface tablets. Mobile, in general, is a continued struggle for Microsoft, and displacing the iPad (and Android devices such as the Kindle Fire) is going to be a monumental task.
Who knows how things might have been different if Microsoft had not wasted valuable time with Zune. But at least now the company realizes — albeit six years too late — that the Xbox brand is its best bet to gain traction in digital media.