Microsoft's Zune Phone: Who Cares?

Despite murmurs that Windows Mobile 7 isn't nearly ready, the rumor mill suggests that Microsoft will launch a Zune Phone as early as next month. But it's been so long since the Zune Phone myth originated, it's no longer a big deal.

Please, hold your fanboy jeers until the end of the article. First, some explanation: Earlier this week, tech blogger Long Zheng spotted some code in Microsoft's latest Zune software update suggesting USB driver support for three phone-related devices. Each device ID contained the words "Zune" and "Phone," prompting Zheng to say that the "elusive 'Zune Phone' is pretty much confirmed."

The discovery fits nicely with a prediction last week by Jefferies & Company analyst Katherine Egbert, who said Microsoft would unveil a "Zune-like phone" at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month. She offered few specifics, only that the phone would run Windows Mobile 7, have a 5-megapixel camera, support 720p video, and include music by subscription.

Now, about that "no longer a big deal" talk: I'm not saying the Zune Phone can't be great, if it exists. If Microsoft is working with a phone manufacturer to create a Microsoft-branded device, as Google partnered with HTC for the Nexus One, I'm sure it would have the powerful hardware. Either way, we just don't know enough about Windows 7 to make that call.

But that's the point. It's not the "Zune Phone" that matters, it's Windows Mobile 7. If Microsoft does a great job with the operating system -- and right now, we really have no idea -- any phone manufacturer could come up with a winner. The Nexus One taught us this. It wasn't a revolutionary phone, but it's among the best uses of Android to date. Still, that doesn't mean HTC, Motorola, or another manufacturer can't come up with a better phone provided they're allowed to use the latest version of Android.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer has said that Windows Mobile 7 is intended for a wide range of devices ("We want to provide vendors with ability to make Windows phones up and down the price scale," he said at a conference last year), so it seems the operating system will go the path of Android, rather than Palm's WebOS or the iPhone OS.

A Zune Phone could certainly get some time in the limelight if Microsoft created it, but it wouldn't stay that way for long.

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