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The Best Products to Come in Second Place

The Zune: An 'iPod killer' gets killed
You know a product is in trouble when even the company that makes it isn't sure whether it is still available.

You can forgive consumers if they have been confused in recent months about the state of the Zune, Microsoft's (MSFT) attempt at an iPod killer. For months, all signs pointed to the end. There was a lack of marketing, unclear manufacturing numbers and Wal-Mart (WMT) stopped selling it.

On its Web site this past spring, Microsoft posted a discontinuation notice and advised consumers its focus would be on its Windows Phone.

Then the Zune's product support team pulled a Mark Twain and said reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated, the Web site notice was pulled and consumers were advised there really is still a Zune.

Last month, the resurrected Zune ran out of lives. It was announced, officially and with finality, that the product was kaput.

To the consternation of those who see Apple (AAPL) as next to godliness, there is no shortage of tech writers and reviewers who have long maintained that the Zune -- often derided as a copycat product -- was actually superior.

In particular, the final incarnation of the media player -- the Zune HD -- scored points on looks, OLED display, interface, variety of video codecs, Xbox and TV integration, built-in HD radio and price. Zune supporters also said the subscription music service known as a Zune Music Pass was a worthy alternative to the iTunes ecosystem.

The Zune, despite a fan base, could never escape the shadow of its popular rival that, launched in 2001, had an insurmountable lead over the challenger's first appearance in 2006. Over the years, the Zune was mired between a 4% and 10% market share in its space, compared with the iPod's baseline of more than 60% penetration.

Tallying the sales of MP3 players last year, the analysts at NPD Group showed what the Zune was up against. On its top 10 list, variations of the iPod claimed all but one spot. The 4GB Sandisk Sansa Clip+ rounded things out at No. 10.

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