By Harry McCracken | Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 10:01 am
Microsoft has announced that the Zune HD is hitting stores on September 15th at prices that significantly undercut Apple’s iPod Touch, Microsoft has begun showing off the media player to journalists (not me, alas, but those who have seen it are enthusiastic). As before, it’s impressive from a specs standpoint, with 720p video output, HD radio capability, an OLED screen, and potent Nvidia graphics. In short, it’s promising. Does it have a shot at being what no Zune has been before it: a product that sells well enough to provide meaningful competition to the iPod?
I can’t provide a fully-baked take on that question until I’ve tried the Zune HD, but the most obvious and daunting challenge it faces is the fact that the iPod Touch piggybacks on the iPhone platform and therefore unlocks access to an amazing array of tens of thousands of applications. The Zune HD, if it lives up to its potential, will be what the iPod Touch was before Apple released the iPhone OS 2.0 software and opened the App Store: a slick media handheld with access to the Web via its browser.
I’m guessing, then, that for many follks who are drawn to the Zune HD’s hardware virtues and aggressive price enough to consider buying it instead of a Touch, the decision will boil down to this: App Store, or no App Store? It’ll be fascinating to see whether enough people don’t care about third-party programs to give the HD critical mass.
Apple has already inoculated the iPod Touch against unfavorable comparisons to the Zune HD to some extent through advertising that’s almost exclusively about the diversity of third-party apps–especially games. And we still don’t really know what the Zune-vs.-Touch comparison will look like, since Apple will almost certainly announce a new iPod Touch in September. It could be a little different from the current model or a major advance. (Side note: I think it would be kinda cool if Apple took the Touch on its own design journey over time rather than keeping it as “an iPhone without the phone”).
Then there’s the question of the Zune name. I sort of admire Microsoft for sticking with it–if nothing else, it shows persistence. The current Zune is a respectable old-school media player itself, but the Zune name feels permanently tarnished. It not only never acquired a tenth of the iPod’s coolness, but came to be associated (at least in the echo chamber of tech pundits) with failure. I still think it would make sense for the company to broaden the not-at-all-tarnished Xbox brand to encompass entertainment on devices of all sorts. But if that’s going to happen, it’s not happening now (even though there is evidence that Microsoft does want to broaden Xbox).
Of course, the best way to make Zune cool would be to release a cool Zune. What’s your take on whether the HD is, indeed, that Zune?