Zune Set to Make First Appearance

Microsoft's highly-anticipated "Zune" portable media device is set to make its first official appearance at an invite-only press event Thursday. The unveiling will follow the introduction of a completely revamped iPod lineup by Apple just two days earlier.

Although Microsoft itself has remained tight-lipped regarding the iPod competitor, little is not already known about Zune, which is being manufactured by Toshiba. The device will feature a 30GB hard drive, three-inch TFT LCD, an FM tuner, wireless 802.11 b/g, and USB 2.0 support. Zune will connect up with a new music service specially designed for the player.

Zune will additionally feature social networking capabilities, with a focus on sharing music and music-related content. Users will be able to link up with "friends" and stream music and playlist data between devices. Content, says Microsoft's J. Allard, who is largely responsible for the player's development and also managed the Xbox 360, is central to the Zune effort.

In a Seattle Weekly profile, Allard calls Apple's iPod "the Pong of digital music," and notes a variety of advanced functionality Zune will bring to the table. But the launch won't be without contention, as it will likely draw the ire of a number of Microsoft PlaysForSure partners.

Microsoft previously remained hands-off when it came to portable device development, simply providing the Windows Media Player software for third parties to build upon. WMP 11 in Windows Vista will feature the URGE music store developed by MTV, along with a number of other legal download options for consumers.

The PlaysForSure strategy has largely failed to catch on, however, and Microsoft is taking a page from Apple's playbook by developing a complete ecosystem: device, software and infrastructure to sell digital content. But the question remains whether Microsoft can bring back the "cool" factor that Apple has exuded since the iPod debuted five years ago.

Zune is expected to go on sale for the holiday season, and Microsoft will likely announce specifics -- including pricing -- at Thursday's event.

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