In Memoriam: All the consumer products Microsoft has killed off

In the early days of the PC revolution, Microsoft aggressively pursued the consumer market with products and services built for fun and games. In recent years, with the notable exception of Xbox and related gaming products, Microsoft has been killing off those products. Here's a look at the departed.
By Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
1 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Microsoft's consumer products: A vanishing breed

In Microsoft's early days, it offered a little something for everyone: businesses, developers, and consumers. That broad approach made sense when a PC was the only way to connect to the online world.

But with the ascent of mobile devices and the rise of cloud-based services, the PC is considerably less essential. Under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has methodically narrowed its focus to business software and services and has cut back dramatically on consumer products.

This collection covers the most prominent consumer products that have come and gone in the past decade or so.

Many involve very large bets that simply didn't pay off for Microsoft. Others represent efforts that are too small to justify.

2 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Loyal cult can't save Media Center

Windows Media Center launched in 2002 as a special edition of Windows XP, offering a so-called 10-foot interface for operating a Windows PC with a remote control and displaying the output on a big-screen television.

Over the next seven years, Media Center became the signature feature of Windows "premium" editions. With support for DVD playback and a DVR that was arguably better than anything from TiVo or your local cable company, Media Center PCs developed a cult following that included quite a few Microsoft executives.

And then, suddenly, it was over. The team developing Media Center features was disbanded in 2009, immediately after delivering the final Media Center code for Windows 7.

When Windows 8 launched, Microsoft released a bare-bones add-in that was essentially a port of the Windows 7 Media Center code, but the handwriting was on the wall. Shortly before the release of Windows 10 in mid-2015, Microsoft admitted it wouldn't be releasing a Media Center update for Windows 10.

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Partners suffer when Microsoft kills a product

When Microsoft put Windows Media Center on life support in mid-2009, the ripples affected its hardware partners as well.

PC makers like HP and Dell had invested engineering resources into supporting and selling Media Center configurations made for the living room. Those products became increasingly less viable as Media Center languished.

The biggest victims were the makers of accessories called Media Center extenders, including HP, Linksys, Samsung, and Ceton. It was awkward enough when Microsoft added extender capabilities to its Xbox 360 console. With the release of the Media Center Pack for Windows 8, those third-party extenders weren't supported at all.

Today, the Xbox One is the only Microsoft product you're likely to find in a living room.

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Xbox success couldn't save Kinect

The Xbox gaming console bled red ink for years before it finally turned into a profitable business. Today, Microsoft's gaming division contributes billions of dollars a year to the corporate coffers.

But not every move the Xbox division has made has been a success. One of its biggest bets was the Kinect sensor, an innovative 3-D camera that enabled a variety of motion-based scenarios for console gaming and other living room applications.

Unfortunately, the Kinect was expensive, and the fact that it wasn't ubiquitous meant game developers ignored it. In October 2017, Microsoft stopped manufacturing the sensors and announced that the Kinect software development kit would no longer be refreshed.

5 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Zune: The music player for nerds

Microsoft's first portable music player was doomed from the start. The brown, blocky Zune 30 debuted in November 2006, the same quarter that Apple's iPod was at its peak. Apple sold more than 21 million iPods in that three-month period, and would sell more than 52 million the following year.

Over time, the design of the Zune Player became sleek and elegant, and the Zune software was both easy to use and ahead of its time, design-wise.

But none of that mattered. Instead of offering credible competition to the iPod, Zune became an easy punchline for comedians and sitcom writers looking for a surefire way to get a laugh by mocking nerds. After five years of this pummeling, Microsoft finally threw in the towel on its Zune hardware in late 2011.

6 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

15 years of digital music frustration ends

If you added up all the brands and partnerships Microsoft tried in its 15-year-long battle again the iTunes music juggernaut, you could probably fill a large whiteboard.

Remember PlaysForSure, the ironically named digital rights management system for copy-protected Windows Media files? How about the ill-fated MTV Urge service, which lasted 15 months? It was replaced by the Zune Music Pass, which became Xbox Music in Windows 8 and then transmuted into Groove Music in 2015 with the launch of Windows 10.

Regardless of the name, mainstream music fans stayed away, preferring Spotify and Apple Music. The Groove Music app is still in Windows 10, but Microsoft removed all music from its online store and shuttered its Groove Music Pass streaming service at the end of 2017.

7 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Consumer software disappears over the horizon

In the days when PC software shipped in shrink-wrapped boxes, Microsoft did its best to keep the consumer aisles fully stocked.

There was Microsoft Money, the personal finance software that survived only because antitrust agencies blocked the company from buying Quicken. And there was Encarta, an encyclopedia on a CD-ROM.

But the highest flyer of all was Flight Simulator, which is one of Microsoft's oldest titles, dating back to 1982.

Microsoft's last entry in the Flight Simulator franchise was released in 2012 and canceled only a few months later. In 2014, the company licensed Flight Simulator X to Dovetail Games, ending its reign in Redmond.

Outside of games and consumerized packages of Office, Microsoft has virtually no consumer software today

8 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Why is there a server in the house?

It seemed like such a good idea in 2007. Put a compact, quiet, PC-like device in a corner of your home, fill it with hard drives, and plug in an Ethernet cable. Voilà! You can now back up all the PCs in your home, stream music and videos over your local network, and even access your server and its connected PCs across the Internet.

It turned out that most consumers didn't want to manage a home server, even if it had a fairly simple dashboard for administrative tasks. The fact that it contained a data-destroying bug that corrupted files for some early adopters just added to its unpopularity.

The rise of streaming music and video services and the meteoric growth of smartphone sales over the next few years made Windows Home Server increasingly less relevant for all but a passionate cult.

Support for the final release of Windows Home Server ended in 2016. It was succeeded by Windows Server Essentials, a product aimed at small businesses.

9 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

The Kin burns out in record time

It's hard to believe today, but Microsoft once had the dominant smartphone platform, with its Windows Mobile software.

That dominance ended soon after the one-two punch of the original iPhone (2007) and the debut on Google's Android platform (2008). The fact that Microsoft thought it made economic sense to release its two Kin smartphones in May 2010 was a classic example of management unwilling to write off a billion-dollar mistake.

Within weeks, it was obvious that the Kin was a spectacular failure. Within two months, Verizon (Microsoft's exclusive partner) had stopped selling the devices and Microsoft ceased production. Over the next year Microsoft methodically erased all traces of the project and reassigned its developers to other projects.

10 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Nokia: Steve Ballmer's last big bet

Microsoft's decision to acquire Nokia's smartphone business in 2013 was one of the company's greatest failures ever, an all-in bet by CEO Steve Ballmer to unify Windows on the desktop, on tablets, and on mobile phones.

Under the leadership of former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop, Nokia had been Microsoft's most enthusiastic OEM partner, delivering beautiful Windows Phone hardware that failed to win over consumers.

Windows diehards loved the devices, but they didn't make of a dent in the market share of the iPhone-Android duopoly.

Rumor has it that the decision to buy Nokia was inspired by the Finnish company's threat to switch to Android. In retrospect, that might have been a better decision for all concerned. Instead, Microsoft wound up writing off its entire investment in Nokia less than two years later, laying off the workforce and dumping its manufacturing capacity.

Nokia's noncompete agreement with Microsoft expired in 2016. Today, the company sells a variety of Android-powered devices under the Nokia brand name.

11 of 13 Image: HP

Windows 10 Mobile bites the dust

Let us start with a fact: Windows 10 Mobile is a very polished, capable operating system, and it's an ideal combination for hardware like the HP Elite x3 phablet shown here.

The signature feature of this device is its small docking station, which uses the Continuum feature to connect to a full-sized keyboard and monitor and turns that phablet into a full-fledged PC. Well, almost.

The trouble is, app developers actively avoided Windows 10 Mobile. And without apps, the buyers never materialized.

And so, late in 2017, Microsoft finally ended its long Windows Mobile experiment, admitting that new features and new hardware aren't in the cards for the platform.

12 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

The Band strikes out

In recent years, Microsoft has become considerably more aggressive about ending unsuccessful consumer projects.

Consider the Microsoft Band, a wearable device designed to compete with Fitbit and similar devices. Version 1 was released in late 2015, with version 2 arriving a year later, at the same time as the first Apple Watch.

Apparently Microsoft's executives took a close look at the Band in 2016, asking, in effect, "Why are we in this business?"

No one knows exactly what the answer was, but the result was unmistakable: The Band was canceled before version 3 could be released.

13 of 13 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Microsoft Auto runs out of gas

When smart entertainment systems first began appearing in cars, at the turn of this century, Microsoft was there.

Like so many Microsoft consumer products, picking the right name has been an ongoing challenge. The opening of the Wikipedia page for Microsoft's Windows Embedded Automotive is unintentially hilarious: "Windows Embedded Automotive, formerly Microsoft Auto, Windows CE for Automotive, Windows Automotive, and Windows Mobile for Automotive..."

The biggest win for Windows in cars was Ford's decision to adopt the technology for its Sync platform. The software received generally low marks, and Ford abandoned the platform for one based on BlackBerry's QNX software in 2015.

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