MICROSOFT PORTABLE MUSIC PLAYER

The tech press is all atwitter over the announcement that Microsoft plans to release a handheld music player to compete with the iPod. Microsoft will be competing with Creative and other partners that manufacture hardware based on Windows Media, Microsoft’s format for DRM-protected music and video files. Since Microsoft plans to integrate the device with a new online service for purchasing music, similar to the iPod and iTunes, it will also be competing with Napster, Rhapsody, and the other services that partnered with Microsoft. (There’s no word on how this affects “URGE,” the music service introduced by Microsoft and MTV with great fanfare a few months ago. There’s no interest in URGE; it may die a quiet death.)

Many of the details are uncertain; this blog entry has the most interesting speculation. The announced name, “Zune,” may be the internal development name, not the final product name. Either way, it’s a good illustration of something that’s becoming more obvious – brand names are becoming more absurd all the time, driven by the need to find a name that has not been registered as a domain name. (Recent examples: Nintendo Wii, Intel Viiv, Microsoft Zune.) As of today, you can see an appallingly lame teaser web site at www.comingzune.com.

There’s talk of a clever marketing feature – software that would convert all the songs in your iTunes library into the format supported by the Microsoft device so people won’t feel penalized by switching brands. That may not make it to market – sounds like something that will cause Apple and the media companies to get all irritable.

The blog entry has one surprising twist, though, that hasn’t been reported elsewhere. It claims that Microsoft will introduce a completely new format for the files downloaded from its service and natively supported by the new device. After years of building support for the Windows Media format – seeking to have movie studios use it for downloadable video, encouraging hardware partners and online services to use it for music – this is very odd. Consumers are already confused about file formats and frequently enraged when they run into unforeseen limits on what they can do with their media. I can’t imagine why it seems necessary to throw another format into the mix.