Will Zune by any other name smell just as sweet? No.

Recently there’s been talk of the future of the Zune brand in light of its absence in the Microsoft-Nokia partnership and MWC keynote announcements. The tech punditry here noticed that, when citing the Windows Phone ecosystem, Microsoft mentioned Office, Xbox Live and Bing, while seemingly purposefully neglecting Zune.

Thurrott claims that his sources say Microsoft is looking to phase out the Zune brand into Windows Live. Other people, including Zune MVPs, have reported and responded to this possibility. Microsoft for its part has come out with guns blazing denying any ‘killing’ of Zune services, and no doubt by Friday we’ll have a statement by the Zune Insiders on their podcast as well. Notice, however, that Microsoft’s statements have not addressed the real question; no one said anything about killing Zune services, the question is about rebranding, and that question so far, remains unanswered.

One can speculate that Microsoft would want to phase the Zune brand away because, in the almost 5 years of the brand, it hasn’t had much commercial success in the tech entertainment industry, whether it’s been devices, marketplace, or other services. Microsoft may think that the reason why its entertainment products and services have not succeeded is because they’re hiding behind a seemingly obscure brand that is unknown by the general public, or worse, the butt of misinformed jokes (i.e. Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Colbert, etc.) They may be looking for a fresh start, now that Windows Phone is on an upward trajectory.

The problem, however, isn’t an obscure brand. The real problem is that Microsoft is addicted to creating generic brands, and it may be looking to do this to Zune. It is well-known that Microsoft is both a consumer and business company, though arguably it’s had more success with its business products and services (save for Windows, Office, and Xbox, two of which are also business products). The business side of the company can afford to create boring, utilitarian brands like Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2008 R2 CTP Release Candidate 4. They don’t need fancy names, because their business customers need to know exactly what the products and services do. Undoubtedly and unfortunately, this has influenced the consumer side of Microsoft, which has created overtly long/utilitarian consumer-unfriendly names like Windows Live Movie Maker, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows XP Service Pack 2 with Advanced Security Technologies, Update Rollup 2 for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Windows Phone 7 Series, Windows Live Sync (renamed from the simple Live Mesh), Windows Mobile Device Center, Windows Home Server Power Pack 2, etc.

Microsoft can’t help but do this; it’s in their corporate blood. Thankfully, sometimes it has gotten it right and realized the value of branding their products. For example, did you know Bill Gates originally wanted to name Xbox the “Windows Game Machine”? Other examples include Silverlight (Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere), Bing (Windows Live Search) and Mediaroom (Microsoft TV IPTV Edition).

Ironically, if Microsoft indeed does rebrand Zune into something generic, it will have come full circle with their entertainment business branding efforts. Remember Portable Media Center and PlaysForSure? Microsoft has tried a generic music/video brand before, one that ties in with other technologies (in this case, Media Center and Windows Media Player), and look at where that got them: Nowhere. That’s why they went the Zune route in 2006. Now they may be going back to a brand they hope to tie in to existing technologies (namely Windows Live) to ensure the success of both products. But if past is precedent, I don’t think merging the entertainment business to another product will give it much of a leg up.

Indeed, a rebranding will do more harm than good. Take a look at what has come out of the Zune branding over the years: Zune Pass, Zune Originals, Mixview, Smart DJ, Marketplace Picks, listening badges, etc. Be prepared to say goodbye to many of them if Zune is rebranded. And I have a hard time believing we’ll see the same innovation and originality if all of Zune’s components are diluted into Windows Live et al. Furthermore, many of these technologies were done in consultation with the community of users, who, without a brand, might dissipate. We might be small, but we’re a vocal minority, and we maintain a good dialogue with the Zune team. You just don’t see that level of engagement with Windows Live (no offense to Liveside, my respects to them, I am a fan).

In conclusion, first, I think the absence of Zune in this past week’s announcement was much ado about nothing. I don’t think Zune is going anywhere, and if anything, it will only get bigger in the coming years (interestingly, Windows Live is the only Microsoft consumer service where Zune has not come to, the only missing part of the 3 screens and a cloud). Rebranding and diluting Zune’s components into Windows Live or whatever would be a step in the wrong direction, in line with the old Microsoft, the corporate one that would rather call it a “Windows Music Machine”; the rebranding will stifle innovation, originality, and community. Now is not the time to kill your potentially next big brand, not when the video marketplace is gaining market share at the expense of Apple, not when there are 2 million new Zune users with shiny new phones, and growing. Your original vision, to make a music social networking service, will finally be fulfilled when you have the scale that Windows Phone will bring, especially with Nokia onboard (Ovi Music is slowly dying anyway).

Real Zune user and fan (not some tattooed loser) signing off.

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