Microsoft's Zune HD rolls out today, but as part of its launch Microsoft's spinning it with an interesting angle—the Zune 4.0 software makes it into a cloud-based, central component of your home-media system.
As Microsoft puts it, it's the company's "vision of connecting entertainment seamlessly from your pocket to your PC to your TV." Basically, MS is positioning the new Zune as one of the "three screens" that form part of our modern media-centric lifestyles—the smartphone, the PC, and the HDTV screen. The last one gets a particularly good spin as the Zune drives a 720p video output through its optional docking base, and thus can actually be used to make your HD media data very portable. The cloud-based component is courtesy of Zune Pass, which lets you log in to your Zune account from any PC, and gives you access to your "favorite music" without having to actually lug a laptop or ZuneHD anywhere with you.
It's all part of a big shift in company perspective—Zune users should be able to access "movies, music, and TV shows wherever" they are, on "any device." But here's a strange line from Microsoft's press release—"there is value for customers beyond pure file playback." The exact meaning of this isn't exactly clear, but MS does give an example of a dad wanting to leave the house, but can't because his kids are watching an episode of Spongebob on TV. With a Zune he can simply download the episode from Zune Marketplace and they can watch it in the car. Arriving home the kids can stick the Zune in its dock and watch the end of the episode on HDTV from where they left off.
But here's something: That marketing example would really sizzle if there was some real interactivity—if, for example, your Zune told your PC exactly what point you were at in an episode, so when you chose to watch it on the PC screen later it would pick up where you'd left off. Microsoft tries to make a big point of the Zune's interactivity by saying: "Putting it all in front of the consumer and making it seamless—Microsoft is the only company that can do that." But I'm not so sure about the seamless, and I'm also not sure MS is the only company to do this. For one, AT&T recently showed it wanted to enter the "three screens" business with its online TV streaming service.
And though MS stresses that though the Zune HD will be compared to iPods, one should really look at the whole service experience...can't you do almost exactly the same thing on an iPhone or iPod Touch? Admittedly you have to hook up an AV cable to the devices, and they won't output an HD signal, but the principle is exactly the same, surely? In fact, with iTunes on a Mac, an iPhone in one's pocket and an Apple TV connected to an HDTV, Apple's arguably ahead in the "three screens and a cloud" approach, at least until MS brings Zune to the Xbox 360 Live—which it's planning to in the fall.