Microsoft’s third and perhaps best Zune effort goes on sale today, taking on the new generation of camera and app-equipped Apple iPods with a relatively pure music and video player.
This time the emphasis isn’t on the Zune’s funky design or wireless sharing feature. Instead the spotlight is on Zune’s sleek new hardware, including a 3-in.’ OLED touchscreen display, and the refreshed software and online music service.
Zune software for sorting, selecting and discovering music and videos is migrating beyond the devices. This fall it’s coming to the Xbox and next year it could show up on mobile phones.
Meanwhile, the new Zune HD is the showcase. The name refers to the device’s ability to receive HD radio and output 720p video (when hooked up to an optional A/V docking device and HDMI cable).
Also new to the device is a browser and a few basic apps, but nothing like the zillions of third-party apps you can download onto the iPod Touch.
The Zune HD costs $220 for a 16 gigabyte version in black or $290 for a 32 gig model in platinum. Red, green and blue models are also available from the Zune’s online store, which sells versions with etched cases.
I’ll write a review of the device after I’ve had a chance to try the new software. Meanwhile, here’s an edited excerpt of an interview with Zune’s marketing manager, Brian Seitz.
Q:How are pre-orders coming along?
A: Better than we had forecasted so we’re really pleased with what’s happened so far.
Q: What’s happening with apps?
A: In the marketplace you’ll see an apps tab on the device and in the software.
Last year our apps were games. We introduced a bundle of games in the update, which was convenient but also really painful because the download was really big. So we stripped those out. Now they’re a side-load experience through the software in the marketplace or on the device.
When it comes to apps on Zune on the 15th what you’ll see is primarily games. We’re refreshing a lot of the games to take advantage of the multitouch. Casual games. plus a couple of apps like the weather app and calculator. Plus we’re building a Twitter (app), a Facebook (app) and a bunch of 3D games like “Project Gotham Racing” that will come out in November.
All of our apps are free … and it’s a managed solution right now, so we’re building these apps or working with third parties to build these apps and provide them to our customers for free.
Q: Will it open up for third-party app developers?
A: It’s hard to say right now. If you look around the company at other places where things like this are important, Windows Mobile rises to the top. They have devices which are always connected, which make applications like maps really cool and important.
On a sometimes-connected device, what people are using them for are games. So what we didn’t want to do was build two parallel app store experiences that didn’t work together.
Right now our product roadmaps didn’t line up perfectly for us to snap to what they’re doing or vice versa. That being said, we know people want things like this on their devices so we’re going to build them ourselves, they’re going to be super high-quality, and they’re going to be free.
Down the road if there’s a way we can work with Windows Mobile or another group inside the company that’s building an app store and take advantage of that, that’s something we’ll look into.
Q: Are you working with game publishers to get titles on Zune?
A: On a case-by-case basis. It’s not really come one, come all.
Q: Will “Project Gotham” on the Zune work with the Xbox — so the device keeps track of your status on the console or something?
A: Not at this point, no. It will be just a standalone experience on the device.
Q: Are you concerned about competing with new iPods with cameras built in?
A: The more things like that that make their way into these devices that aren’t about great music and video playback, the more it’s distracting or sacrificing that original purpose of the device. Apps are jamming in, cameras — that’s work that’s not being done on the music front.
With this release, you can see we’re still really focused on music and video. We’re still hyper-focused on that. Maybe that’s the benefit of being the little guy. We can have that laser-focus.
Maybe some of those people … did buy an iPod because it’s all about music, and now it’s not. Maybe we can get some of those folks.