Microsoft Zune HD: Going beyond the specs

Microsoft Zune HD: Going beyond the specs

Summary: On September 15, Microsoft and its retail partners began selling the Zune HD in the U.S. Lots of sites have hands-on reviews, photos and feature details beyond what's already leaked to the Web over the past few months. I have been more curious about how the Zune fits into Microsoft's product and services strategy.


On September 15, Microsoft and its retail partners began selling the Zune HD in the U.S. Lots of sites have hands-on reviews, photos and feature details about the players and the accompanying Zune 4.0 software beyond what's already leaked to the Web over the past few months.

I have been more curious about how the Zune fits into Microsoft's product and services strategy. Here's what I learned from chatting with Terry Farrell, Senior Project Manager for the Zune.

To Microsoft, the Zune is  more than a media player, Farrell said. Microsoft is fully aware that, currently, the Zune is an MP3 player "with a few million, highly engaged customers," in Farrell's words. Microsoft execs have been saying -- ever since the company split the Zune team in two and sent the software folks to work with the MediaRoom IPTV folks -- that Zune's future is all about software and services.

See also:

Farrell confirmed there will be "at least" one more generation of Zune media players. Beyond that, who knows? The way the market is moving, dedicated MP3 players look to be on their way out, with users preferring to buy, play and consume their audio and video on phones and/or other devices, he said.

"The bigger story," Farrell contended, "is about how it (the Zune) is helping us build a new entertainment brand for Microsoft. Among the core pieces of this brand are the Zune HD, MSN and Windows Media Center. The idea is to provide a set of unifying services -- the same video service/same catalog -- across all of these devices.

It doesn't mean, as some have speculated, a single app store for the Zune HD and Windows Mobile. Or a common set of games offered across the Zune HD and Xbox. Yes, there will be even more integration between the Zune HD and Xbox (as well as a new $89 A/V dock for non-gamers who are still interested in streaming HD content to their HDTVs rather than onto their gaming consoles). But the handful of games and apps Microsoft is going to offer in November for free on the Zune HD are casual games (think Project Gotham Racing Ferrari Edition), a calculator, a weather app, and Facebook/Twitter clients.

Why not go the Apple route and have one big app store in the cloud?

"Mobile devices are always connected. Our device is sometimes connected to the Web," Farrell said. That means different kinds of apps and experiences are better suited to a Zune HD than a mobile phone, he said.

Speaking of the Web, Microsoft -- or, at least, the Zune team -- is starting to talk about Microsoft's entertainment future as being about four screens. Microsoft execs, from CEO Steve Ballmer to Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, have been describing Microsoft's long-term "three screens and a cloud" vision. Those three screens -- the PC, TV and a portable device -- are complemented by a fourth, Farrell said: The Web.

With the Zune HD, Microsoft is including a built-in Web browser as part of the device's Windows CE-based operating system. (It's "a version of IE for Windows Mobile 6.5, but highly customized for Zune HD," a spokesperson said. The version of IE that is part of Windows Mobile 6.5 is IE 6-based.) Users can use an on-screen keyboard and Bing, unsurprisingly, is the built-in search engine on the device.

Many industry watchers cite Apple's control of the end-to-end experience -- everything from the hardware to the software -- as key to what makes its products successful.  But that's not the way Microsoft is going, at least not in the media player market.

"The way to think about the Zune going forward is as a software and services layer," Farrell said.

What's your take: Are the Softies are thinking about this the right way?

Topics: Browser, IT Employment, Software, Operating Systems, Mobility, Mobile OS, Microsoft, Hardware, CXO, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Zune Platform

    I think its quite easy to see where MS are going with this, establish a brand for Entertainment *Zune make some premium products *Zune HD and try to continue to raise its profile. The strength here is that if they can provide a more unified mediacentre/xbox/zune/mobile store accross all devices then they can simply add the zune experience to any device that wishes to intergrate it, they get to take advantage of the backend delivery/content that MS has in place and MS move back to where they belong, a software provider. The only thing that is really confusing is why only the US for Zune/Zunestore? Why are they not deploying to more countries? What is holding them back. Zune 4.0 is an amazing mediaplayer/store front end, this and the Zune HD should be used to showcase how far MS is getting along with this project.
    • Why no Zunes HD in Europe

      Why no Zunes HD in Europe?

      You'll find the answer in the following blog:

      In contrast with the relatively recent rollout of digital radio in America, the European Union began implementing all-digital radio broadcasts back in 1999. Its existing DAB (digital audio broadcasting) standard is being improved to make use of the modern MPEG-4 HE-AAC, called DAB+. More recently, another broadcast standard has emerged in Europe with an even more misleading and unfortunate name than HD Radio: DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale). Like HD Radio, it maintains backward compatibility with analog radios using a hybrid digital broadcast.

      Like HD Radio, Europe?s DRM and DAB+ all have their own flaws helping to hold back widespread adoption of digital radio standards, including a lack of compatibility amongst each other. This is all relevant to the Zune HD because it effectively makes its main feature usable only to Americans. That?s also why Microsoft is restricting sales to the US; who outside the US would buy a media player with HD Radio features that aren?t even available outside of the US, and which isn?t compatible with the digital radio standards that are available locally?
      • I see...

        ...I'll guess I'll have to make do with the analogue signals and use the FM/AM bands instead.

        How do I do that with an iPod Touch again? :)
        Sleeper Service
      • Zune can support DAB with firmware update

        The radio receiver inside the ZuneHD supports these radios
        - HD Radio
        - AM
        - FM
        - DAB (Eureka)

        When MSFT is ready for Europe they can activate DAB.
        Ricardo Dawkins
      • Don't let a good story go just because of facts!

        Please go to
        for DAB country info. Note USA and most of Europe standard DAB.
        And as for DRM utter fantasy please go to
        a read some facts. DRM is currently used for Short Wave broadcasting and has been for about 10 years, AM (Medium wave) is about but the uptake by listeners is virtually none. Please note that the USA broadcast DRM on AM. Has anybody heard it?
  • Zune HD Myths:

    Some analysis (interesting points!) here:
    • Oh dear!

      1) It's roughlydrafted
      2) You do realise that the Tegra demo is on an 18 month old unoptimised version and that it's running on WVGA resolution with AA and AF on, right? And that the Pandora demo is on a smaller resolution screen with no AA and AF?

      Oh dear!

      It's sad when you have to post discredited nonsense from a discredited hatesite that no-one with a shred of intelligence takes seriously.
      Sleeper Service
    • Pathetic Article

      So one of the five reasons zune is bad is because HD Radio isn't short for High Definition Radio? Wow, Microsoft is even more evil than I thought!

      Seriously, all that "analysis" does is speak in broad generalitites while grasping at straws. Meanwhile, I'm heading over to Best Buy to check out the new device. I'll learn more about it that way than reading the opinion of some guy who's never actually seen the thing first hand.
      • Not me.

        [i]Meanwhile, I'm heading over to Best Buy to check out the new device.[/i]

        I'm not.

        Every BestBuy withing 100 miles of me is sold out already.
        Hallowed are the Ori
    • RoughlyDrafted..... HAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!

      thx for the pick-me-up
      • Perhaps this will help you...

        There you go.. same article.. same author...
        Appleinsider.... Do you know who Prince McLean
        is? Are you familiar with his work, technical
        savvy? Maybe you should do some research before
        you point out how ignorant you are.
        • Yes...

          ...he's the same lunatic who writes for RD and who is a laughing stock in the tech community.
          Sleeper Service
        • Perhaps you should go tell someone who gives a damn...

          ... what you OR Appleinsider has to say.
          Hallowed are the Ori
        • I didn't know MMA fighters wrote for RD!

          I Googleized Prince McLean and this was the 1st link:

          The guy is so popular that the first link must be him, right?

          Wow, the dude is strong, intimidating, AND smart!

          Aw jeez, being ignorant is a sin? :( I thought that could easily be fixed by being taught. And you just did! Thanks, buddy!

          BTW, I still don't like Roughly Drafted's obvious virulence against everything Microsoft. And Mr MMA fighter does write for Roughly Drafted. That's a mark against someone's impartiality and credibility. But, hey, I'm ignant. So what do I know, right?
    • Complete annihilation of your link

      My [b]favorite[/b] bit of FUD from the Roughlydrafted article which immediately brings into question [b]every[/b] other article they've [b]ever[/b] published was this gem:
      [i]but NVIDIA?s own demonstrations of Tegra?s ARM11/integrated graphics show it achieving 35 fps in Quake III. The same software running on Pandora?s Coretex-A8 with SGX GPU core achieves 40-60 fps[/i]

      Yeah, what they [b]don't[/b] tell you is that Tegra was getting 35fps at 800*480 with anti-aliasing while Coretex was getting 40-60fps at 480*320 with no anti-aliasing. FUD FUD FUD! Roughlydrafted has perfected the art of giving you half the relevant information and then letting you draw factually unsupportable conclusions based on incomplete facts. This is why Roughlydrafted articles are always [b]so[/b] easy to annihilate.
      • Sounds like RD and ZDNet are just alike!

        Mary Jo overlooks the fact that the iPod Touch works in any light, the
        Zune HD is useless in daylight. But then ZDNet doesn't care about the
        user experience nor does Microsoft.

        What is cared about is advancing technology for the sake of advancing

        Well, the Zune is crap technology, really.

        BUT, the marginal user base could be compared to what you all feel
        about Mac OS X users. The difference is, Zune HD will not grow like
        Mac OS X is growing.

        I think this will be the last Zune.

        And MJ, he didn't answer your Apple TV question at all, did he?

        MS thinks software is about what cool stuff you can do with code.
        Unfortunately for users, they don't care about code. They care about
        making their lives better.

        Zune HD fails on that score.
        • The Zune HD is useless in daylight?

          Do you enjoy being a masochist? :)
          Sleeper Service
        • You should try it out in person and form your own opinions ...

          ... rather than repeating the uninformed rantings of others.

          I have actually touched and used a ZuneHD ... in daylight ... and it was delightful. It's fast, responsive and the screen looks great. FWIW, the videos of the ZuneHD UI were taken in a darkened room because the video camera was better able to record the screen output more clearly in a darkened room than in the daylight. It had nothing to do with how usable the ZuneHD (or any other OLED display) is outdoors.

          So you say that the "ZuneHD is crap technology"? Why? Specifically?

          And as for your statement about what MS thinks is cool ... I think it's cool as hell that I can record a TV show or movie on my Media Center, seamlessly watch it on any screen in my house connected to a PC, XBox360, MediaCenter extender, AND I can seamlessly copy it over to my Zune so I can watch it on my way to/from work or take it over to a friend's house and plug it into their HD screen and watch it with them.

          Yes, MS has not yet made a truly "better together" experience when it comes to PC's, MEdia Center & portable devices, but this is a REALLY good first step.

          The next step may well just tie all the loose ends together and enable me to access all of my media regardless of where it is, where I am and what device I am using. Can't wait!
      • They're rough drafts

        Give them a pass, man!

        They just haven't gotten to the final versions.
      • I'm not fan of Roughly Drafted, but...

        We all know Roughly Drafted is a big fanboy
        site, but sometimes, where there is smoke,
        there is fire. With that said, the post you
        linked to hardly was anything but a complete
        annihilation. Seriously, Myth 1 isn't far off,
        LCDs in the iPod Touch are brighter and do
        better in sunlight.

        Your Myth 2 argument is that Microsoft has been
        making browsers longer? And??? they still

        Your Myth 3 argument is that the Zune has less
        resolution and worse sunlight, but somehow has
        a better display. Huh?

        There is no apparent rebuttal to Myth 4.

        Your Myth 5 argument is that someday there will
        be games for the Zune as good as the iPod?
        Again, huh? Based on what?

        While I agree that Roughly Drafted is obvious
        fanboy bait, the rebuttal post you link to is
        even more ridiculous. If anything, it only
        adds credibility to the Roughly Drafted piece.