The Zune HD media player is about to hit the streets, but is it too little, too late? "With this release, you can see we're still really focused on music and video. We're still hyper-focused on that," declared Microsoft Zune's marketing manager, Brian Seitz. Notice he started out by saying "with this release," not mentioning the grand convergence down the road for Microsoft. That's what makes this Zune HD release the beginning of a revolution for Microsoft, and for computing and media.
The usually plodding and methodical Microsoft burst out of the gate with innovative features on the Zune HD, including that super-bright, sharp OLED screen, HD radio, and the best feature of all, 720p HD playback. That's where we think the revolution begins. It supports playback on multiple screens, all playing the same content at appropriate resolutions. It lets you buy or rent a movie from the Zune Marketplace, and play it on a Xbox 360, Zune HD, any HDTV with a Zune HD docked, or, eventually, your cellphone.
Enter the zPhone
And yes, it's pretty much a certainty that there will be a Zune cellphone, hinted at for months and now beyond the secret stage and well into the rumor mill. Now we're hearing a pair of such phones will be revealed in less than four months. That's when Microsoft's Project Pink will deliver the final piece to this puzzle, with a zPhone with all the goodness built into the Zune HD, with the added benefits of mobile broadband.
Let's peer ahead one year, where we'll see how the release of Zune HD represents a shift (*ahem*) in Microsoft's strategy, a convergence of media everywhere, using multiple screens for the same content. You buy (or steal) those movies, TV shows or songs once, and then you can watch them anywhere. Imagine this: You carry around a slim, tiny phone, and when you get home you plug it into a dock that charges it. Meanwhile you instantly have access to its content — movies, songs, pictures — on any PC on your network, your Xbox 360, or any TV in your house. That video you started watching on the train? You can finish watching it in your home theater in HD, even 1080p on your Xbox 360.
Welcome to the Subscription
Helping that along is the Microsoft Zune Pass, where a $15/month subscription gives you unlimited downloads of millions of music choices, plus you get to keep 10 MP3s every month — they belong to you even if you stop paying. Extend that concept to movies, TV shows and applications, where you pay once and use whatever you want. Sure, it might be more expensive than $15 a month, but you'll be able to access all of the content you can consume, wherever you go. That might be worth a lot more than 15 bucks.
Let's think about this scenario two years from now: By then, that little zPhone HD could evolve into something a lot more powerful, and its Bluetooth connectivity could let you use a desktop or portable keyboard and mouse with it. That dock feeds into your PC monitor, and you have a complete computing platform that fits in your pocket. By then, Microsoft opens its app store to third-party developers, blends in all of its own applications, and offers a complete computing platform that's no bigger than the Zune HD is today.
Theory of Everything
That concept ties into Windows Live, where you might be tempted to keep all of your applications and data, a safeguard against that awful day when you lose your tiny zPhone HD, along with all of your data. No need to worry, all is persistently backed up, because everything is in the cloud. Voilà! Microsoft dominates the computing world again, turning the Zune's 1% market share into something more. A lot more. It could happen.
UPDATE: Look how Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer adds credence to some of these concepts, while denying any upcoming Microsoft-branded phones.