Mobile Communications

Microsoft's Cortana speaker will go the way of the Zune

Remember the Zune? Probably not, or if you do, you don’t remember it well. It was a portable digital music player launched by Microsoft in 2006 to compete with Apple’s iPod. It tied to Microsoft’s MSN music service in the same way the iPod ties to iTunes.

The Zune was one of Microsoft’s many ungodly kludges. It started life as a bulky, too-expensive, unwieldy contraption that was unpleasant to use and inferior in every way to an iPod. I know because I had one. (That’s the kind of thing one has to do when one covers the Microsoft beat.) And it only got worse from there. For example, there was midnight on December 31, 2008, when countless first-generation Zunes froze and refused to work because their internal clock drivers couldn’t handle the leap year properly. (A day later, the Zune unfroze by itself.) Eventually, in 2011, Microsoft finally discontinued the unloved and unlovable device.

The Zune’s history isn’t that different from a more well-known crash-and-burn Microsoft hardware fiasco — Windows Phone. No need to go into details here about its sad history, and the billions of dollars Microsoft threw away before it finally pulled the plug on developing it.

The Zune and Windows Phone have one major thing in common: Both were hardware products launched in an attempt to catch up with competitors that had already released well-designed products that were selling like gangbusters. And neither of them was better than the products Microsoft hoped they would replace.

And now it’s déjà vu all over again. Microsoft is doing the same thing with Cortana smart speakers, trying to catch up to market leader Amazon’s Alexa-powered line of smart speakers, Google’s Google Home line of smart speakers, and Apple’s HomePod. Although it’s still too early to see which tech giant will dominate the market, so far the results haven’t been good for Microsoft. It looks as if Cortana-powered speakers will suffer the same fate as Microsoft’s other me-too products that had no real reason to exist.

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