All Over The Map: How – and why – did Microsoft ‘Name That Zune’?

Oct 15, 2021, 9:16 AM | Updated: Oct 19, 2021, 11:21 am

Tim Ellis appreciates the HD Radio on his Zune, which happened to be tuned to 97.3 FM when he took this photo. (Courtesy Tim Ellis) Microsoft's 2008 Zune brand guidelines give some clues as to the origin and intent of the Zune name. (Courtesy Peter Bull) Many people agree that Zune graphics were pretty good, but the brown color of the original 2006 unit was not universally appreciated -- to put it mildly. (Courtesy Peter Bull) Tim Ellis listens to podcasts on his Zune while using his smartphone to shoot videos for his "Dispatches from the Multiverse" podcast. (Courtesy Tim Ellis)

We know now it couldn’t beat the iPod, but where and how did Microsoft get the name for its gone-but-not-forgotten Zune media player?

In autumn 2021, it’s easy to make jokes about the Zune. We’ve all heard it called the “Edsel of mp3 players,” and it’s a handy punchline for poking fun at the original Northwest tech beast – and the “Lazy M’s” mixed results with hardware over the decades.

But autumn 2021 is actually the anniversary of a couple of big Zune milestones – or maybe that should be milezunes?

Those who study this kind of history (or who have access to the Seattle Times archive via the Seattle Public Library) know that it was 15 years ago this Nov. 13 when Microsoft announced the Zune with a big press event at Westlake Park. November 13, of course, for those who study other kinds of local history, is also the day the Denny Party landed at Alki; it’s unclear if Microsoft was aware of this 15 years ago.

The Zune was just like an iPod, Apple’s dominant mp3 player, which had been introduced five years earlier in October 2001. But the Zune also had some cool features that the iPod didn’t – such as a built-in FM Radio, and a feature whereby a Zune user (Zuner?) could share files, such as favorite songs or photos, wirelessly with other nearby Zunes. That other Zuner could then play that shared song three times over the next three days before the file would disappear. This sharing feature came to be called, perhaps unofficially at first, “squirting,” and that term was embraced by Microsoft. Friendly warning, though: Be careful if you type that word into Bing.

At Westlake Park in November 2006, the Zune was rolled out at midday with great fanfare. John Richards — a popular KEXP 90.3 FM morning guy then and now — was on stage as an official participant in the proceedings.

In a piece written by Brier Dudley, the Seattle Times reported the next day that “Richards gushed about the device, noting its big screen and ‘rich, Seattle feel.’” Dudley reported that Richards said, “I’ve had this for maybe 24 hours and I’ve already figured out how it works.”

Bill Gates and a band called The Secret Machines (irony alert?) were also on hand for the fun at Fourth and Pine.

But the fun didn’t last.

The other milezune came 10 years ago, on Oct. 4, 2011. The Zune news that day was bad.

“Zune player appears to be officially dead,” read a Seattle Times blog post, written by Janet I. Tu.

The post continued, “The Zune Player Support and Service page says: ‘We recently announced that, going forward, Windows Phone will be the focus of our mobile music and video strategy, and that we will no longer be producing Zune players.’”

Death wasn’t instant. Microsoft spokespeople hemmed and hawed. Official Zune websites disappeared and then came back, but the Zune brand officially went away in October 2012. Music downloads and streaming ended in November 2015.

Adding it up, the Zune really only had five fully active years, from 2006 to 2011. It also happened to be introduced when the iPod had already had five fully active years, and had pretty much already captured the market. Combing through many tech websites and blogs, the consensus seems to be that the Zune was good and it was different from the iPod — just not different enough to catch up in terms of sales.

Add to this the fact that the first iPhone then came out in 2007, and a killer mp3 player at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration was a little bit like having the best buggy whip as President Harding was getting involved with Teapot Dome.

The triumphs and travails of the Zune are well-documented, but the origins of the Zune name — which was controversial in at least one language — are something of a mystery. We know the Edsel was named after Henry Ford’s late son Edsel Ford. We know that “New Coke” was, literally, Coke with the word “New” in front of it.

A KIRO Radio email to the Microsoft PR team seeking the Zune-name origin story hit a dead end.

“Thank you for your patience as I looked into your request,” a spokesperson wrote in reply. “I have connected with my most appropriate colleagues, and unfortunately we are unable to accommodate your request at this time.”

Fortunately, a writer and designer in the U.K. named Peter Bull has just published something he calls the “Zunepedia,” — subtitle, “Unofficial photographic journey of the history of the Zune devices, hardware, services and the community that keeps it alive to this day.” It’s an ambitious project, and it can be downloaded as a free PDF.

Bull doesn’t know the origins of the name “Zune,” but he does know a number of interesting contextual facts that help tease out some of the backstory, including the placeholder name that was used during product development.

“There was indeed another name as part of the process,” Bull wrote in an email. “[T]he project to develop the original Zune device was codenamed ‘Argo’ and was a cooperation between Microsoft and Toshiba based on their Gigabeat S device and was headed by J Allard of Microsoft.”

In the Zunepedia PDF, Bull says, “I did feature the codenames of each device, … such as Keel for the original Zune, Draco for the larger capacity second generation device, Scorpius for the smaller more portable device and Pavo for the third generation Zune HD.”

“The only other codename was ‘Alexandria’ for what became the Zune Marketplace,” Bull continued.

It was that same Egyptian library, which ultimately burned down, that also inspired Amazon’s Alexa – but stay tuned for more on that story in a future installment of All Over The Map.

Peter Bull also shared a copy of Microsoft’s original brand guidelines, which said the name Zune was chosen because it could be “own[ed]” – that is, trademarked – and because it “sounded both active and fun while suggesting an association with music and technology.”

KIRO Radio also connected with a former Microsoft employee who was involved with Zune and a number of other projects.

“Zune, I believe, was a candidate from internal brainstorming sessions,” the person, who spoke on background and asked not to be named, wrote in an email. “’Zoom Tunes’ (e.g., send songs to your friend wirelessly) and ‘TuneZ’ I recall as being part of those same discussions.”

However the name was developed and chosen, Everett-based podcaster Tim Ellis still uses his Zune HD (aka “Pavo”) whenever he wants to listen to podcasts and his smartphone is tied up shooting videos for his “Dispatches from the Multiverse” podcast.

Ellis is in his early 40s with a day job in tech. He says he’s not a Zune evangelist, proselytizer, or even a diehard.

“I’m more of a Zune fan,” Ellis told KIRO Radio earlier this week. “I like it. It worked well for me and it still works for me. I had to replace the battery in it recently, but other than that, it’s been cruising along without any issues all this time.”

“Even though I’ve had to jump through a few little hoops to get the software working on a computer, it wasn’t too bad,” Ellis continued, who concedes that the Wi-Fi connection for his Zune no longer works, and that he recently had to replace the proprietary cable that connects his Zune to his PC.

Despite those little hoops, “it’s a great product that does exactly what it’s intended to do,” Ellis said.

Among Ellis’ more memorable Zune experiences was living through the Great New Year’s Eve 2008 Zune Freeze, when a software bug related to the leap year caused all units of his model of Zune, all around the globe, to lock up and become unusable.

Microsoft, says Ellis, “came out during the day and said, ‘They all have this issue … but don’t worry, it’s going to fix itself at such a time or whatever.’ And I was like, ‘All right. Well, let’s find out if it really does.’”

“I set up a live cam and sat there and live-streamed the frozen Zune screen, until eventually it unlocked,” Ellis continued. “And sure enough, it just went back to normal.”

Which is exactly the kind of rich, Seattle feel we can all hope for when any piece of tech gear stumbles – whatever it happens to be named.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: How – and why – did Microsoft ‘Name That Zune’?