Microsoft has always said it has had big plans for its Zune portable media player platform, and now the Redmond software giant has begun tipping its hand: Microsoft will take on the likes of Apple’s iPod touch with a forthcoming Zune HD, a new portable media player that will feature an integrated Web browser, HD Radio receiver, and a 480 by 272-pixel 16:9 OLED widescreen display with multitouch capabilities. The company has also announced it will be extending its Zune video service to its existing Xbox Live service, bringing Zune content to more than 17 existing Xbox Live subscribers.
"The Zune music player is an integral part of the overall Zune experience, and we’re proud to be growing and extending our offering beyond the device," said Microsoft’s corporate VOP for TV, Video, and Music Enrique Rodriguez, in a statement. "Delivering on Microsoft’s connected entertainment vision, this news marks a turning point for Zune as it brings cross-platform experiences and premium video content to living rooms around the world."
First up, the Zune HD player will sport a 480 by 272-pixel OLED touch screen with multitouch capability, enabling users to navigate media quickly. The Zune HD will also build on the Zune’s existing Wi-Fi capabilities by offering a full-screen Web browser; Microsoft hasn’t released any details but it’s pretty safe to bet the browser will be built on mobile versions of IE rather than WebKit, Opera, or Mozilla. The Zune HD will also sport a HD radio receiver (enabling users to tap into HD single- and multi-cast broadcasters), although it’s not clear whether this receiver is in addition to the existing Zune FM receiver or a replacement for it. The Zune HD will also be able to stream audio to the device from the Zune music store via Wi-Fi. Although the Zune HD’s integrated display doesn’t support showing true high-definition content—the resolution just isn’t there—users will be able to pop the Zune HD into an AV Dock to push high-definition video from the Zune HD to an HDMI-equipped HDTV at 720p.
Microsoft hasn’t announced any capacity, pricing, or availability information for the Zune HD yet, save to say it will be available in the U.S. "this fall" and will feature flash-based storage. Another big unknown is whether the Zune will support any sort of mobile gaming capability: to compete effectively with the iPod touch, the Zune HD will likely have to offer something to compete with Apple’s App Store.
Microsoft has also announced it plans to make the Zune brand a full first-slot partner in the Xbox Live Video Marketplace, putting the Zune brand in front of millions of Xbox users. What Microsoft has not said is what will be available for Zune and Xbox customers: right now, customers who buy videos via Xbox Live can’t play them on the Zune. It seems pretty obvious Microsoft would like to move toward a model where content purchased for the Zune or the Xbox is transparently playable on the other platform.
Microsoft plans to demonstrate how it plans to integrate Zune content into the Xbox Live Video Marketplace at E3; the company has not said when it plans to roll out the Zune service or where else the Zune brand might show up: speculation has it debuting as a mobile service, although Microsoft apparently is not planning a Zune phone.
Some industry watchers are pointing to the Zune HD as Microsoft’s answer to the iPod touch. Although moving the Zune brand to the Xbox Live Marketplace does expose Zune to a captive audience who have already adopted a Microsoft entertainment platform, the simple fact is that the Zune will have been competing with the iPod for three years by the time the Zune HD hits the market and has yet to be anything but an also-ran behind Apple’s iPod/iPhone juggernaut. Apple’s iPod touch will have been on the market for two years, with Apple’s App Store running for well over a year. Microsoft has always said it’s in the portable media player game for the long haul; at this point, the company may be looking to redefine the game, rather than take on Apple head-to-head.