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Microsoft Pri0

Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

December 31, 2008 at 9:15 AM

Mass outage of 30 gig Zunes; Microsoft working on response

[Update, Thursday 8:33 a.m.: It appears the fix worked. Details here.]

[Update, Wednesday 2:05 p.m.: Microsoft just announced the problem was likely caused by a bug in the internal clock related to leap year. See this post for more details.]

Reports are streaming in from around the Web of Microsoft’s 30 gigabyte Zune media players failing all at once. Here’s one man’s description, consistent with thousands of others posted on a Zune forum and in comments to blogs:

“I turned on my Zune a few hours ago, and the start-up screen appeared. The progress bar went across the bottom, and stopped at 100%

“And it just sits there.”

The Zune team is issuing the following statement:

“We are aware that customers with the Zune 30GB are experiencing issues with their Zune device. We are actively working now to isolate the issue and develop a solution to address it. We will keep customers informed on next steps via the support page on zune.net (zune.net/support).”

Clearly, this is not the kind of consumer electronics news story Microsoft wanted to see one week before its chief executive and entertainment and devices president take the stage at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Update, 10:45 a.m.: Matt Rosoff, a digital music expert and analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, checked his 30 gig Zune this morning and confirmed, “I’ve got that pink and black screen of death.” Rosoff has a theory about what’s gone wrong.

KEN LAMBERT/THE SEATTLE TIMES

Bill Gates, introduces the Zune at Seattle’s Westlake Center in November 2006, while the band “The Secret Machines” are on standby.

Microsoft introduced its 30 gigabyte Zune in fall 2006 in a bid to compete with the iPod, Apple’s runaway success. The hardware was basically a tweaked Toshiba Gigabeat. “The first model, Microsoft did not manufacture and design itself,” Rosoff said. “They slapped some new software on this Gigabeat to get the brand out there and get the product established in the market.”

Microsoft shipped more than 1 million 30 gig Zunes before phasing out the product in 2007 in favor of hard-disk drive based players with more storage and Flash players with less.

Rosoff speculated that because only these older 30-gig Zunes appear to be affected, the problem stems from the interaction between a particular chip and the Zune firmware. Microsoft issued new firmware for the Zune this fall.

“The fact that they’re all failing at once suggests that there’s some sort of BIOS problem, something in the chip that they used, some sort of clocking mechanism that ran out of time or something like that,” he said.

Despite the problem occurring close to the new year, he doesn’t think that’s the source of the failure. “I’ve seen some speculation that it’s like a Y2K type of bug caused by the new year. That doesn’t seem likely because I don’t think the Zune has an absolute clock in it. I think it’s got a relative clock. … It doesn’t know that it’s December 31st.”

“Rather,” Rosoff wrote in a blog post after we spoke, “it probably counts a total number of seconds since some particular zero date near the device’s creation. So that clock might have reached a number that’s too large for the field created to hold it, but the fact that it happened on the last day of 2008 is probably an unfortunate coincidence. It’s almost funny, except for the fact that I’ve got 25GB of music locked up on this brick.”

Whatever the cause, this can only bring headaches to Microsoft, which Rosoff and many others expect to announce a new strategic direction for the Zune brand. Rosoff said:

“Microsoft is still a bit player in this market and I’m expecting them to refocus their Zune strategy on mobile phones and really make it part of their overall mobile entertainment strategy, not just this dedicated MP3 player. I expect them to do something like that this year. Might announce it at CES, might announce it later.

“If they’re going to talk about the Zune at CES this certainly gives detractors a lot of ammunition.”

While the tech gadget echo-chamber is in a tizzy about this mass failure, some Zune owners are keeping things in perspective. The man who described his Zune failure at the top of this post followed up in an e-mail:

“I’m certainly irritated and I want MS to take care of it, but perspective… There’s homeless people out there shivering in the cold and going hungry, human slavery still going on in the world, and yet people are seething mad about their digital music device not working.”

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