Microsoft confirmed Tuesday that it plans to introduce a new Zune device this fall, continuing the company’s uphill battle to establish itself as a player in the digital music business.
Details are still scarce but the new ZuneHD will include high-definition video output, HD radio, a browser and an advanced touchscreen.
Simultaneously Microsoft is stepping up efforts to put Zune software and Web services on other hardware, starting with the Xbox.
Zune will take prime real estate on the Xbox dashboard starting this fall. Its video store will replace the current Xbox Live Marketplace, dramatically increasing the reach of the Zune software and brand.
Whether Microsoft can get other hardware makers and phone companies to use Zune software remains to be seen, but it’s clearly the long-term goal.
In Zune-speak, the devices are “tuners” that access music and video services offered online, in the “cloud” of the Web. The plan is to have multiple tuners accessing the Zune music and video service.
“Without question we are going to be looking at more and more tuners, if you will, for our service,” said Enrique Rodriguez, vice president of Microsoft’s recently created TV, video and music group.
Xbox is the first “tuner” — beyond the Zune players — for the Zune video service.
“If I look forward, there will be a world that goes beyond our devices, but to me the first step is to be sure we have an opportunity to excel on our own devices,” Rodriguez said.
In the three years since Bill Gates unveiled the first Zune at Westlake Park in Seattle, Microsoft has established the brand in consumers’ minds, although what it represents is up to interpretation.
During the last holiday season Zune sales fell 54 percent, or $100 million, prompting questions about its future at a time when Microsoft’s pruning costs.
Then in April images of the ZuneHD began circulating on gadget blogs, suggesting an encore was in the works.
“We’re going to continue innovating around the device to make sure we can showcase the great experience that can happen,” Rodriguez said.
Microsoft’s not yet saying anything about the price or storage capacity of the ZuneHD, but it’s releasing enough details to get the new gadget on the radar a month or so before Apple’s expected to release new versions of the iPhone and iPod Nano.
ZuneHD will have the ability to output high-definition, 720p video content when connected to an HDMI-docking accessory.
The Wi-Fi device also features a 16:9 ratio touchscreen, with an OLED (organic light emitting diode) display, the emerging technology that received a lot of attention at the past two Consumer Electronic Shows and is used on Sony’s latest Walkman media player.
New for the Zune is the appearance of a browser — a customized version of Internet Explorer — that could transform the Zune from a geeky media player into a pocketable Web tablet.
The browser also raises the question of whether Microsoft will finally allow software developers to write games and applications for the Zune, similar to the way Apple has increased the value of the iPhone and iPod Touch with its App Store.
This is apparently a sore spot in Redmond.
“We’re painfully aware that applications are absolutely a key part of the experience and to some degree we have fallen behind what the iPhone has done. That hasn’t gone unnoticed,” Rodriguez said. “You will see us more and more think about third-party developers and devices like Zune or other devices that we would roll out. Microsoft at large has a great traditon of being the prime partner to application developers. I think you’re going to see us pick that up.”
More details about the Zune software’s appearance on the Xbox will presented Monday at the Electronic Entertainment Expo game conference in Los Angeles.