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Early Zune Owners Ring in the Year with Silence

zune clock crashIf you type “hate Vista” and “Microsoft” into Google, the search engine returns 91,200 results.  “Vista Sucks” and “Microsoft” returns 124,000.  It’s no secret Microsoft’s latest operating system offering has its critics.   Xbox and Zune owners are far less venomous.  Many, in fact, are fiercely loyal to the products that come out of Redmond.   This new year, however, the ranks of Zune faithful may thin by a few.

On December 31st, some owners of first generation 30gb Zunes were forced to ring in the new year with silence after a program error temporarily rendered their MP3 players into digital paper weights.

Some fan forums and web message boards stacked up with complaints.

Microsoft attributed the problem to the Zune’s internal clock driver.   Apparently, the program in first generation Zunes was unable to handle the 366 days in 2008, a leap year.  The devices crashed when they were connected to a computer that correctly handled the calendar.

It was only a few years ago that Bill Gates singled out the Zune’s software as an area in need of improvement.  In 2007, speaking of the first generation devices, he said “it was just so-so on the software side.  I’m sure a year from now we’ll do even better.”

It seems he wasn’t exaggerating…. While firmware upgrades made improvements to the older Zunes, the “Leap Year Bug” buried in the "so so" offering went by unnoticed. 

There is good news, however.  The problem only hit first generation Zunes.  Thanks to the Zune’s limited market penetration that means only a relatively small number of people were impacted.  (Microsoft has only about 3% of the U.S. MP3 market (according to NPD) compared to Apple’s 70plus percent.  The 30gb Zune represents only a small segment of that.).

More recent models were free of the Y2K-like bug.   

Also good news, the problem was self-correcting. 

“The issue should be resolved over the next 24 hours as the time change moves to Jan. 1, 2009,” Microsoft said in a post on the Zune blog.

Not so good is the negative P.R.  The Zune’s crash is another blemish on what is already a marred track record for Microsoft’s consumer hardware offerings.   A year and a half ago, in July of 2007, the company took a more than $1 billion accounting charge to handle repairs and replacement costs associated with failures in Xbox 360 consoles.  The boxes suffering what from what was tagged “the red ring of death” have since been blamed on poor in-house chip design.

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