Marshymellow: The day the Zunes stood still

Yesterday morning, thousands of previously happy Microsoft Zune 30 owners woke up to a interesting situation. Their Zunes were dead in the water.

As Neowin reported yesterday, "At exactly 2am CDT (12am PDT), the docked Zune made the 'unplugged from USB port' bong-noise and went to the boot-up screen with the 100% loading bar...and froze." This situation was similar if not identical for every other Zune 30 owner who had their devices turned on.

Microsoft acted quickly, undoubtedly after being bombarded with angry phone calls, emails, Tweets and message board posts. Shortly after 2pm PDT, Microsoft posted on their ZuneInsider blog and explained the problem and the solution.

Early this morning we were alerted by our customers that there was a widespread issue affecting our 2006 model Zune 30GB devices (a large number of which are still actively being used). The technical team jumped on the problem immediately and isolated the issue: a bug in the internal clock driver related to the way the device handles a leap year.

The issue should be resolved over the next 24 hours as the time change moves to January 1, 2009. We expect the internal clock on the Zune 30GB devices will automatically reset tomorrow (noon, GMT). By tomorrow you should allow the battery to fully run out of power before the unit can restart successfully then simply ensure that your device is recharged, then turn it back on. If you're a Zune Pass subscriber, you may need to sync your device with your PC to refresh the rights to the subscription content you have downloaded to your device.

Microsoft says they'll have an updated firmware for the Zune 30 out before 2012, which is the next leap year and the next time this problem is scheduled to happen.

The impact of this problem will be one that will haunt the Zune for some time. While the device is a fairly solid platform, with millions of happy customers, it still has its issues. Mostly, marketshare. For a long time I've recommended the Zune as an alternative to the iPod for many friends and family. My wife (Zune 4), father (Zune 4) and brother-in-law (Zune 30) have them, and I had a Zune 30 for a short time as well. But chances are most people who were of the non-geek persuasion have no idea what the Zune really is... but they probably do now.

Microsoft received a lot of negative press (and perhaps rightfully so) from this glitch in the mainstream media including CNN, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and even their own MSNBC. (Et tu, Brute?)

Add to that press, the old adage that a satisfied customer will tell a one or two people about their experience but an angry customer will tell 10 and you have somewhat of a public relations nightmare for the Zune. Consider that the story on Neowin yesterday (at the time of writing) received nearly 9k views in one day, and garnered over 150 comments. These numbers are lightyears ahead of any other Zune story posted on the site in at least the last year, if not more. My Twitter feed was lit up yesterday with angry users, but also tech bloggers and other technology social networking butterflies who were commenting most of the day about the problem. It was hard to have your head anywhere yesterday and not at least see that the Zune 30, at least for a day, was an expensive and black/brown/white, brick.

Thankfully this glitch didn't take down Zune 4, 8, 80 or 120 users, otherwise what is a nightmare would be somewhat apocalyptic. As of August 2008, marketshare of the Zune was at around 4%, which is actually really strong, especially if you take all iPods out of the market, which enjoy nearly 71%. The Zune sits on top of the "non-iPod" MP3 player market. This is great news, except for one pesky problem... all the iPods are still there, with at least 18x the number of customers. The iPod has become synonymous with the term MP3 player. And to my knowledge, it has never bricked for a day.

Microsoft needs to act quickly to offer a remedy to all Zune 30 owners who may or may not have been hit with this bug. First off, the idea to offer them discounted upgrades is a horrible one. The conspiracy theorists out there already are talking about how this is all an evil plot by Redmond to force users to migrate to newer devices. While I don't see this problem as being that sinister, the fact is Microsoft will have to face up to this outlook despite everything they've done to prevent the perception in the past.

Microsoft has gone out of their way to make sure that early adopters of the Zune platform, with the Zune 30, have not been left behind in feature upgrades after each software release. The only thing the new Zune 4/8/80/120s can do that the Zune 30 can't, is navigate with a touch sensitive keypad. (Oh yeah, and not brick for a day.) This is because the hardware for the newer devices is physically different. The Zune 30 still has all of the latest firmware updates in parody with the new devices, features Wifi sync and sharing, etc, etc, all for free. To Microsoft's credit this is something that Apple either cannot or does not offer users of the iPod. Early adopters of the iPod Touch were charged $20 to upgrade their devices when the 2.0 version of the firmware came out with features like the App Store and Exchange sync. +1 to Microsoft there.

What Microsoft needs to do is offer a financial remedy to Zune 30 users who were without their devices for the day. Microsoft should be offering free song downloads, or a month of free Zune pass to Zune 30 owners. They need to act quick to make sure that the thousands of angry Zune owners don't soon become thousands of new iPod owners.

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