The rumored passing of Microsoft's Zune digital media player brings to mind a trove of consumer gadgets, software, and services from the company that have moved to the tech graveyard.
Reports have it that Microsoft is killing off its would-be iPod killer, the Zune digital music and video player. Microsoft declined to confirm the reports, though plenty are speculating that the company will keep the Zune brand and continue to produce media player software for Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360. If true, that would relegate the much hyped device to the dustbin of failed tech products.
And that got us thinking about other consumer products eliminated by Microsoft over the years. The software giant is hardly alone in tech flops. Apple's success with the iPad and now iPad 2 makes it easy to forget the Newton. And Sony's Betamax flop is the stuff of business school case studies.
Microsoft continues to make boatloads of money selling operating systems for computers bought by consumers. And gamers keep buying Xbox 360s and the games that get played on them. But there's a rogue's gallery of products introduced with great fanfare that have slid into oblivion. Here are a few of them.
Kin 1 and 2
Nobody we know of keeps track, but the Kin 1 and 2 mobile phones were likely the shortest lived products in Microsoft history. The phones, cute little gadgets (at least cute in the way that pudgy babies are), lasted but 48 days until Microsoft decided, on June 30, 2010, to discontinue the product line.
The phones may have looked great, but they didn't work great. Aimed at the social-networking crowd, the Kins had a fatal flaw. Users couldn't upload photos to Twitter. And it didn't help that Verizon charged $70 a month for Kin's data plan.
MSN Direct Smart Watch, aka the SPOT Watch It was hard to avoid references to Dick Tracy when Bill Gates unveiled these watches at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2003. Folks couldn't speak into the devices, like the square-jawed detective. But the watches, made by the likes of Swatch, Suunto, and Fossil, sported screens that could display stock prices and sports scores.
But the watches were bulky, and not in the cool way that TAG Heuer timepieces are. And the information the watches displayed was often available on cell phones and other devices. As watchmakers abandoned the software, Microsoft announced plans to discontinue the service in 2009.
Here, Swatch CEO Nick Hayek (left), actress Mischa Barton (middle), and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates are all smiles at the New York launch of Swatch's Paparazzi MSN Direct Smart Watch.
Microsoft came up with a novel approach to luring Web surfers away from Google: it would pay them to use its search engine. So it created Windows Live Cashback, which morphed into Bing Cashback when Microsoft rebranded its search engine. Shoppers got cash back every time they made an online purchase at a participating retailer, as long as Microsoft's search engine directed them to the site.
But Cashback didn't really change the dynamics of Web search. And in addition to pumping out cash to feed the service, Microsoft also wound up offering cash to buyers of rival products, such as MacBook computers, as long as they were purchased from partners such as J&R Electronics. The service lasted two years before being discontinued in July 2010.
Windows Live OneCare
There were some in techdom who found it a bit ironic that Microsoft would get into the antivirus market, given that its products were the biggest targets for malware creators. Still others worried that Microsoft's dominance of the operating system market would give it an unfair advantage over rivals such as Symantec and McAfee.
For years, Microsoft has tried just about everything it could think up to carve into Google's massive market share lead in search. Soapbox was Microsoft's effort to combat YouTube.
The service, which let users upload videos and rate and comment on them, hoped to tap into the vast Web traffic visiting Microsoft's msn.com sites. In the end, users flocked to YouTube, creating a network effect that rendered Soapbox irrelevant.
Microsoft Wireless Base Station
Yep, for a few years, Microsoft even tried to elbow its way into the world of modems and routers. In addition to the wireless base station, Microsoft also offered notebook adapters and a wireless adapter for the original Xbox.
Those products debuted in 2002, back in the day when setting up a home network and getting computers connected to it were hair-pulling traumas. To its credit, Microsoft's wireless gear made things much easier, something that helped nudge rivals such as Linksys and Netgear to follow. But rivals continued to dominate the market and Microsoft discontinued the line after just a few years.
Some products die quickly because they were ill-conceived from the start. Others live full, rich lives, fading away because the market they pioneered ran its course. Put Encarta in the latter category. When the digital encyclopedia emerged in 1993, it fueled the digitization of writing. Encyclopedias, which filled shelves in libraries and homes, gradually moved to landfill.
Encarta moved from CDs to DVDs to an online version. But by 2009, the business had run its course. All the information Microsoft spent money compiling was available for free on the Web. The business model had disappeared. And so too did Encarta.
Like Encarta, Microsoft Money lived a long and lucrative life. It debuted in the early 1990s, giving Windows users a tool to manage their personal finances.
But Money consistently trailed Intuit's Quicken, one reason why Microsoft tried to buy Intuit, only to be rebuffed by antitrust regulators. What's more, banks and brokerages continued to improve their online offerings, giving consumers fewer and fewer reasons to spend cash on Money. Microsoft said it would stop selling the software in 2009.
Microsoft has spent billions building a TV business, a market it continues to go after with its Mediaroom IPTV software. But back in the dawn of Internet TV there was WebTV. It was a flashy service that combined television and Internet access. Microsoft was so wowed that it shelled out $425 million for the company in 1997.
Microsoft took bits of WebTV's technology and incorporated it into its other TV offerings. But WebTV endured for years, often because it was an easy way for technophobes to get e-mail. Microsoft rebranded the service as MSN TV in 2001. But the limited functionality, which served a purpose in the early days, rendered the product less relevant over the years. Microsoft phased out sales of the hardware in the mid-2000s.