All Eyes on Zune HD

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Microsoft's new Zune HD personal media device continues to sail toward its scheduled Sept. 15 release date, as the FCC has reportedly tested and approved sample units for HD Radio receiver emission compliance. In fact, FCC lab photos of the samples, some of which include shots of circuit boards sporting legible chipsets recently appeared on, providing plenty of fodder for online tech forums.

Microsoft Zune HD

While that online close-up may not be exactly what Microsoft marketers had in mind, Zune HD does seems to be getting its share of media attention despite the long shadows cast by rival Apple's Iphone and Ipod Touch. That's not surprising given the new Zune's feature set, which includes:

  • Built in HD Radio FM with multicast and song tagging capability
  • HD video output at 720P via an optional HDMI A/V dock and cable
  • A 3.3" 16:9 OLED multi-touch screen with 480x272 resolution
  • Wi-fi
  • A user interface built on Microsoft's Windows CE OS with a full-screen Internet browser optimized for multi-touch functionality
  • Access (via Wi-fi) to Zune online store and social communities

    Price point for the 16GB (black) model is expected to come in at about $220, with the 32GB (platinum) coming in around $290.

    But what's most intriguing about the Zune is that Microsoft decided to include HD broadcast radio functionality, marking a strategic decision to further differentiate itself from the Iphone and Ipod Touch, which have eschewed broadcast radio altogether.

    Frankly, it's a risky proposition for both Microsoft and Ibiquity. If the user experience with Zune's HD functionality is checkered (or worse), it could blemish the Zune HD's launch and likewise cast a pall on HD Radio's perception by the geek community in general. That's not a pretty picture to contemplate.

    But of course the flip side is also true, so it isn't hard to understand why Ibiquity has been so aggressive in recently pushing the FCC to permit an immediate 6dB increase in digital signal levels. A good first impression is priceless. Either way the Zune HD may well mark a tipping point for HD Radio.

    And Apple, well known for its acumen in upstaging the competition, has apparently been paying attention, as message boards hum about a rumored new Ipod Touch model that includes both onboard microphones and camera. The same rumor has Apple staging a media event to break the news on Sept. 9, 2009, less than a week before the Zune HD makes its appearance on store shelves.

    It's no secret that Microsoft's Zune never met company expectations in terms of its market share, and that pundits were ready to write the platform off altogether less than a year ago. But the Zune also has some devoted fans, and that's a story not unfamiliar to those of us who have followed digital radio's rollout here and elsewhere around the world.

    So it will be interesting, very interesting, to see if these two current tech underdogs can develop some meaningful synergy. A lot of people, including plenty of online pundits, will be watching.

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