Geeks beat Microsoft to Zune patch

Web commentators wasted no time dubbing the simultaneous shutdown of thousands of Microsoft Zune players the “Zune Apocalypse,” conjuring images of Aztec curses and Mayan end-of-world mythology — which is about three years early given that the Mayans have chosen Dec. 21, 2012 as the end of days.

The Zune Apocalypse is most definitely terrestrial in origin, a software glitch that froze 30GB models at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 30. Whether the glitch is related to the last firmware update — firmware being the root software that comprises the Zune’s operating system — is unknown, although the shutdowns have been reported on Zune players with and without the latest upgrade to 3.1.

A lot of Microsoft developers spent their New Year’s Eve working on a fix, which was a tall order. For one thing, it’s impossible to reset the players, or turn them on in a safe way that would allow users to apply a software patch.

Other users figured out a way around the glitch by the time Microsoft was even aware of the problem — letting the battery run down completely in order to reset the internal clock to the original factory setting. That allows users to go around the bug that apparently only kicks in at 12:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve — pretty much the same bug fix that Microsoft came up with two days later.

Of course, Zune users lost no time screaming for compensation, and my guess is that Microsoft will probably comply with some freebies — maybe giving away some free Microsoft points to users to download music or videos or something. I hope it’s generous.

Microsoft did not need this drama right now. Like the critical Internet Explorer security alert less than a month ago, Microsoft’s ability to write good, clean software has been called into question in the most dramatic, public and embarrassing way imaginable. Anyone on the fence over whether to buy an iPod, Zune or some other type of portable music player probably won’t care that only the older 30 GB models were affected, or that the fix was so simple.

Given ongoing problems with Vista, the generally lukewarm reception so far to Windows 7 and a host of other issues plaguing the company, it’s not surprising that Microsoft is rumored to be laying off up to 15,000 employees in 2009, or 17 per cent of its workforce.

The one exception, and thankfully because I own one, is Microsoft’s recently profitable Xbox division. Despite some problems with reliability at the outset, Xbox 360 is firmly in second place in the console market behind the Nintendo Wii, outselling the PS3 by 3-1 over the holidays, and outselling all other consoles including the Wii when it comes to games.


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