Needed: A 'Zune Touch'

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With Windows Phone 7 finally out, what does the future hold for Microsoft's line of Zune media players? I suspect that very few people outside of Redmond are asking themselves that question right now -- and that anybody who does care assumes that the Zune HD will turn out to be the final stand-alone Zune. (Like all the other Zunes before it, the HD suffered from a malady I like to think of as "Gee, this is quite a good product, but it's in a class of devices that people lost interest in a year ago" syndrome.)

Me, I'm hoping for a new Zune soon -- maybe several of them. Hold on, hear me out, I'm serious.

One of the great mysteries of the current tech industry is why Apple's iPod Touch -- basically a smartphone without the phone, 3G connection, monthly charges, or contracts -- has no real competition. It's clearly selling like gangbusters, yet the only products that feel like direct competitors come from little companies like Archos. Wouldn't other big electronics companies like a piece of the action?

But when you think about it, maybe the lack of Touch rivals isn't all that surprising. A competitor would need to be built around a platform. The most obvious candidate would be Android -- but Android, as it stands, wouldn't be very satisfactory. The iPod Touch benefits not only from Apple's iOS but also from the whole iTunes ecosystem: the music, the video, the e-commerce infrastructure, the integration with other Apple products such as Macs, iPads, and Apple TV. Without this stuff, the Touch wouldn't be the appealing, ready-to-enjoy entertainment device that it is.

Android can't match any of that: It bundles in some loose integration with Amazon's music download service, and that's about it. Attempts by other companies to supplement Android's standard entertainment features, such as Verizon's use of a Blockbuster movie download app, aren't exactly inspiring.

That won't stop some companies from building Touch-like Android devices -- here's Samsung's Galaxy Player, which is rolling out in Europe. But few companies are in a position to put together a suite of entertainment services that are even vaguely in the same league as the ones Apple controls.

But Windows Phone 7? I think you could use it to build a decent iPod Touch competitor right now. All the money Microsoft has invested in Zune hasn't bought it a significant percentage of the media player market, but it's resulted in a solid music service (Zune Pass), a reasonable selection of movies and TV episodes to download, and a piece of ambitious Windows media-management software. And Windows Phone 7's gaming features are on the Xbox Live platform -- a form of integration into a larger ecosystem that even Apple can't match.

The smart, entertaining user interface also feels like it work just fine on a media handheld designed to appeal to millions of non-nerds; Android still feels a bit like it was designed by geeks, for geeks.

At the right price, a WP7-based media handheld that was essentially a phoneless Samsung Focus could be the first plausible mainstream iPod Touch competitor. I'm not saying it would be a hit-there's still the question of "Why should I buy this instead of an iPod Touch?" -- but it seems like it'd be worth a try.

Microsoft itself could release a "Zune Touch," or it could work with Samsung, LG, HTC, or another hardware maker, or with several of them. I don't have a clue whether such a device is on the road map. But I'm struck by the unbelievable patience that the company has shown for the Zune brand name. It's practically synonymous with "unsuccessful Microsoft attempt to compete with Apple," yet it lives on -- Windows Phone 7's desktop software, entertainment services, and media apps all put the Zune name front and center. That's especially odd given that Microsoft has a history of changing the names of products early and often when they're not instant hits. (Back in January of 2009, I suggested that Microsoft consider dumping the name Zune in favor of "Xbox," but it didn't listen.)

With all the Zune-ified aspects of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is doubling down on the brand rather than getting ready to phase it out. Could it be doing so at least in part because it thinks there's still life in Zune hardware line beyond the Zune HD?

This story, "Needed: A 'Zune Touch'" was originally published by Technologizer.

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At a Glance
  • The Zune HD is a huge step forward for Microsoft's Zune line, but you still have to pay extra for some of the best features.


    • Gorgeous, multitouch interface
    • Superb on-device video quality


    • Software can be sluggish
    • Some of the best features cost extra
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