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Microsoft's Zune, New Year's Eve don't play together

The portable media gadget shuts down for an estimated 1 million users. The technical glitch is blamed on the leap year.

January 01, 2009|Alex Pham

For an estimated 1 million owners of the Zune media player, New Year's Eve was the day their music died.

A technical glitch related to the 2008 leap year caused some versions of Microsoft Corp.'s devices across the globe to seize Wednesday. The devices should come back to life today.

But not before making many of the Zune faithful wonder why they hadn't bought an iPod instead.

Puzzled over why their gadgets stopped working, some guessed that it had to do with the year's end. They dubbed the problem "Z2K," after the dreaded Y2K computer bug that didn't materialize to the extent feared.

Microsoft later attributed the problem to the Zune's internal clock driver, which didn't know how to handle the fact that there were 366 days in 2008. That led the devices to crash when they were connected to computers that recognized the extra day.

The Redmond, Wash., company's proposed fix: Wait a day, and it will work again.

"The issue should be resolved over the next 24 hours as the time change moves to Jan. 1, 2009," Microsoft said.

Although customers were relieved to learn it apparently wasn't a permanent malfunction, the seize-up tested the loyalty of a group that had eschewed Apple Inc.'s more popular iPod. During the first 11 months of 2008, Apple controlled 70% of the U.S. market for digital media players, compared with Microsoft's 3%, said Ross Rubin, an analyst at NPD Group.

"Microsoft has been trying to keep up with Apple, and this is potentially very embarrassing," said Richard Doherty, research director for Envisioneering Group, a technology consulting firm.

It's also bad timing for the company, whose chief executive, Steve Ballmer, is set to deliver the opening keynote address Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"It's a week before CES, when I'm expecting them to make an announcement related to their mobile strategy. I wouldn't be surprised if that includes Zune," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm that tracks the software giant. "If they mention Zune now, everybody is going to have a good chuckle about this."

But Zune owners weren't laughing.

"I'm more than a little upset," said Eddie Zapien, a 25-year-old real estate broker in Salem, Ore., who keeps about 3,500 songs, 100 photos and four movies on his device. "It's indescribable. I love my Zune. I think it's the coolest thing I own. I wouldn't trade it for 50 iPods."

Zune owners lighted up online forums and blogs with their testaments of ire and frustration, some threatening to switch to the iPod if the issue was not remedied. Zapien was one, but he perked up upon hearing that the glitch was temporary.

"I was starting to worry about whether I'd have to switch to an iPod," he said.

Microsoft said that it has sold 3 million Zunes since introducing the device in November 2006, but that the leap-year problem affected only the unspecified number of models with 30 gigabytes of memory that were manufactured by Toshiba Corp. and discontinued in 2008. Rosoff estimated that there were about 1 million such Zunes in the market.

Microsoft also sells models with 4, 8, 16, 80 and 120 gigabytes of memory.

The Zune seize-ups come on the heels of a hardware malfunction uncovered last year in Microsoft's Xbox 360 video game console. That problem was estimated to have cost the company, which is best known for making operating systems and office productivity software, more than $1 billion to fix.

Said Doherty: "From the Xbox 360 recall to the Zune surprise, Microsoft is learning that it's very difficult to be a hardware company."

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alex.pham@latimes.com

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