The Zune HD: a new hope for Microsoft?
May 27, 2009 11:39 AM CT
Microsoft last night announced (officially) the Zune HD, even though the device won't be available for several months. While the product itself looks nice, it's the "platform" behind it that is finally coming to fruition and may be Microsoft's best chance at capturing a bigger slice of those home entertainment dollars.
We spoke with Brian Seitz, the group marketing manager for Zune, about the new product and Microsoft's larger strategic ambitions. Here's everything you need to know:
Old accessories: Yes, accessories for other Zune models will interface with the Zune HD, which features the same connector plug.
Multitouch: Yes, Zune HD has it.
Web browser: A full Web browser will be included. It will use now-standard multitouch gestures like double-tap, pinch, and stretch. Seitz told us it would be a "cool browser for the finger." My digits are tingling already.
(Update: Microsoft tells us it is a "version of IE 6 that has been highly customized and optimized for multitouch." As for an e-mail client... this is it. No app is available, but "common e-mail services like Hotmail will be accessible via the browser.")
Flash: The Zune HD Web browser is still in early builds, but Seitz says that Flash support doesn't look likely. "From what I've seen, no," he said, but that might still change before release.
HD: Zune HD has an OLED 16:9 touchscreen with a resolution of 480x272. That sounds sweet, but it's not high-def. The "HD" in the product name refers to support for HD radio on the one hand and, on the other, support for outputting HD video to TVs over an HDMI connector.
HD radio: Past Zune research has shown that owners used the radio feature an average of twice a week, so Microsoft hopes to capitalize on that popularity by adding support for HD radio. Like digital TV, HD radio is a digital format that supports multicastingóone station can now offer multiple subchannels. With few portable HD radio receivers on the market, Microsoft hopes this will set it apart.
HD video: If you thought getting that HD video (720p max) off the device and onto a TV would be cheap and easy, you're half right. The HDMI connection needed to do this will only interface with an external Zune dock, which is sold separately (and if history is any indication, at outlandish prices).
Internet connection: As with past Zunes, the Zune HD features a WiFi connection but no cellular radio. The decision positions the device quite obviously against Apple's iPod touch, though Seitz makes it clear Microsoft is "not trying to play copycat."
Original Xbox games: Some early rumors around the device suggested that it could play 3D games from the original Xbox. Microsoft has "nothing to announce" about games at this time, but clearly has plenty of ideas in the works. More details will be forthcoming over the summer.
An app store: One of the touch's key features is Apple's App Store. Microsoft sounds ready to launch something similar for games, but what about other applications? Seitz says that the company looked at the top 20 apps people used on the touch and found that most were games. Without a cell radio and constant Internet, this makes sense. The Zune team also wants to avoid duplicating work being done by the Windows Mobile team, and it doesn't make sense to have two separate app stores.
Zune death: Are the smaller flash Zunes going away? Seitz says that no final decisions have been made beyond the fact that Microsoft wants to focus more on its next-gen product. Reading between the lines, though, if you want one of the smaller flash Zunes, picking one up this summer is probably a good idea.
Xbox Live: The Xbox Live Video Marketplace will be replaced by some kind of "Zune Marketplace" later this year. Microsoft has spent the last year (finally) doing some heavy lifting on the backend with the goal of combining its sprawling services. While specifics haven't yet been announced, the company does want to move to a model where purchased content resides in the "cloud" and can then be viewed on any device (Xbox, Zune, Windows PC). This would be a welcome and long-overdue change to the current, more limited approach.
Storage space: Not yet announced.
The Zune as "platform"
Beyond the spec sheet, the bigger news is that Microsoft has thrown in the towel on its original Zune strategy. The goal was to pump out devices in different form factors while keeping the hardware features the same; that way, every Zune would have the same features and older devices could get feature upgrades via firmware.
That approach has ended. The Zune HD adds HD radio, a new screen in a different aspect ratio, and multitouch. The older devices were nice but never gained much traction in the marketplace, and Microsoft is shaking things up with a serious hardware refresh.
The company has also said for years that Zune would be a "platform" and not just a device, and it finally looks set to deliver on that vision. It has all the tools to be compellingóWindows, Windows Mobile, Xbox, the Zune player, and content partnerships. In a utopian future, the prospect of buying a TV episode through the 360, then watching it on a PC, Zune HD, or WinMo cellphone is powerful.
Right now, a "Zune pass" for music doesn't allow streaming directly to a WinMo phones or the 360, while Netflix support is only available on the 360 and Windows, but not the Zune or WinMo. When every service comes to every screen, the Zune hardware truly will be just one piece in a huge ecosystem, but it will gain tremendous value from all that integration.