Today, Microsoft's next generation digital media platform goes live, with the release of the Zune HD portable media player and the Zune 4.0 software and services. More strategically, this release also marks a very important change in the way that Microsoft markets and brands Zune. While it was positioned as a direct iPod rival originally, the Zune hasn't performed well in that capacity. So going forward, it will become Microsoft's overreaching entertainment services brand, with the portable device just being a part of that brand, and not the focus.
For a product that's being deemphasized, the Zune HD is surprisingly competitive. It features a small and light form factor that somehow manages to make the iPod touch look bulky by comparison, and a gorgeous, multi-touch OLED screen that is vastly superior to any Apple product's screen. Microsoft further enhanced the Zune HD with HD video playback (via a separately sold dock), HD radio, and an intuitive new user interface. There's even an iPhone-like web browser and applications store, though, unlike with Apple, all the apps are free.
The Zune HD is available in 16 GB ($220) and 32 GB ($290) variants, in both black and platinum. If you order online from Zune Originals, you can choose from three other colors and various other customizations as well.
On the PC side, the Zune 4.0 PC software is still free and is improved since the previous generation with a Quickplay UI that lets you bypass your entire media collection and access the content you enjoy most frequently, a new mini-player mode, various Windows 7 integration bits, and other changes. On the Zune Marketplace online store, Microsoft now offers TV shows and movies for rental and purchase, and you can enjoy them on your PC, your Zune, and, in just a few months, on your Xbox 360 as well.
Whether any of these improvements helps Microsoft make inroads on the iTunes ecosystem is unclear, but the software giant appears unfazed by the competition. Going forward, the company says to expect to see the Zune brand pop up all over Microsoft's products, starting with a video interface on the Xbox 360 in November. But I wouldn't be surprised to see Zune in Windows, and in Windows Mobile, among other places. My review and other Zune HD/Zune 4.0 content begins today on the SuperSite for Windows.