Microsoft Announces Zune HD: So What?

Your first question might be, “Isn’t Zune dead already?” Or you might be wondering, “Why does Microsoft bother?” You might even be asking why there’s a report about Zune on TheAppleBlog.

Well, first the news. CNET’s Ina Fried reported yesterday that Microsoft has confirmed its long-rumored plans to launch an HD version of its portable music player in the fall. (Paul Thurrott says September 5.)

ZuneHD

Microsoft has left no room for doubt in our minds as to how it views Zune HD. Chris Stephenson, general manager of global marketing for Microsoft Zune, said, “This device is created to go head to head with the iPod Touch.” Head to head, huh? OK, then.

That must surely mean Zune HD supports a multi-touch UI, OTA content delivery, a rich catalog of apps including games, a killer web browser, native personal information management functionality, world-class media management/playback software, and a rock-solid software foundation on the desktop. Right?

Well, it’s not really clear. It has the (admittedly beautiful) Zune UI, plus the Zune software on the desktop (which is way better than Windows Media player). News of a new Zune-branded video service on the Xbox also sounds promising and suggests potential interop between the handheld device and Microsoft’s console-based video on demand service. But we will have to wait for next week’s E3 trade show to get more information on that.

It will indeed have a web browser — sadly, a touch-enabled version of Mobile Internet Explorer. (It doesn’t matter how they tweak the control paradigm, Pocket IE is still inexcusably bad. Ask anyone who has used a Windows Mobile device to tell you about Microsoft’s mobile browser. You will see the pain in their eyes.)

But no word on games. Or storage capacity. Or choice of models. We also don’t know yet how much it will cost. But we do know that it sports an OLED (480×272) 16:9 widescreen display, spits out 720p HD content (via a dock, not included) and comes with HD Radio. Yeah, oooh, exciting.

The truth is, we know barely anything at all about this thing. Perhaps Microsoft hopes the early announcement will generate some useful speculation and buzz on the intertoobs before next month’s WWDC (and news of a new iPhone) steals headlines and column inches everywhere — some observers have suggested this was Palm’s strategy in announcing the upcoming Pre when it did.

Either way, what is there to say about the Zune HD that makes it stand out from an iPod-saturated market? HD video output? HD Radio? Err… retro ’90s design?

I’m pleased someone is trying to win a share of what has, clearly, become Apple’s market. But when the de-facto standard for portable digital media devices is the iPod Touch/iPhone, any serious competitor has to make its products at least as good as them. Right now, I don’t see anything particularly compelling about Zune HD. But that doesn’t mean the compelling features aren’t there — just that Microsoft is doing its usual unfocused marketing.

When most other companies would have counted their losses and scrapped it years ago, Microsoft has demonstrated a stubborn dedication to this product, so it’s probably worth keeping an eye on where the company takes it next. You never know, Redmond might just surprise us.

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