Details of Microsoft's next Zune device have emerged on the web over the past few days with some exciting new features already appearing.
Here are five features or directions that Microsoft should be integrating in the Zune HD gadget to make it a viable (and potentially profitable) alternative to the Apple iPhone.
(1) A Phone. Not A Player
Stand alone Portable Media Players are passé now. The fact that the iPhone emerged from the iPod Touch means illustrates the need for Microsoft to come up with a more elaborate version of the Zune. If Microsoft wants to pit the Zune against Apple's iPod, it will have to challenge four versions of the popular media players which are themselves pitching at different price segments.
Should the Zune become a phone, it will allow Microsoft to focus on only one competitor - the iPhone. That said, it is likely that the Zunephone will be a template and a model for other other manufacturers (and partners) like HTC.
(2) Gaming Features
There are rumours that the new device will support 3D XBox Games which would explain why Microsoft has apparently been looking for a new Halo developer. It is extremely important that Microsoft comes up with a solution to fill the huge (and growing) gap in its gaming portfolio. Sony and Nintendo already have portable gaming consoles and with Apple already turning the iPod touch and the iPhone into a very capable gaming smartphone, Microsoft will need to up the Ante.
Amongst the proposed features that the ZuneHD is said to have, there's a large feedback capable, multi touch HD OLED touchscreen, wireless capabilities, HDMI support, the use of the Nvidia's Tegra platform (which is ideally suited for the gaming market).
(3) Windows Mobile 7 & Seamless Integration
It would be great to have Windows Mobile 7 in the next Zune HD. Details of the next version of Microsoft's Mobile are still sketchy and although it was due to be released this year, chances for that actually happening are slim.
So it could mean that Zune HD will have to be launched with WM6.5 before getting a massive software upgrade in early 2010. The next Zune will also need to patch up all the software shortcomings of the existing model including the (missing) WiFi music syncing, better support for audio and video podcasts as well as tighter integration with existing Windows platforms.
(4) Online Ecosystem
Apple has iTunes. Microsoft has Zune Marketplace, Windows Marketplace for Mobile and a plethora of other ways of confusing its customers. Microsoft should get its "iTunes", a comprehensive, integrated environment that may or may not run within the browser but needs to provide with all the necessary bells and whistles that Apple currently offer but better.
If Spotify and Firefox (with Ubiquity) have shamelessly copied iTunes's multi frame design, why not Microsoft? The software giant needs to catch up with Apple. Make all content - video, audio, applications, firmware - available from a single point, just like iTunes.
(5) Free and Incentivise
Microsoft has a little something called Zune Pass which allows you to download millions of tracks every month and keep 120 per year.
All for only $180 per year. Why not copy Nokia's Comes With Music structure and either bump the price of the monthly subscription or allow partnering mobile phone networks to give it away for free on selected contracts.
Ultimately, the Zune and Microsoft-based smartphones are two converging segments which are bound to merge at some point in the future.
The software giant also needs to proactively encourage its huge developer userbase to take on the task of coding for its new mobile platform as well. (ed: what about selling to territories outside America).