The weeks of carefully orchestrated of leaks and rumors surrounding Microsoft's iPod-like Zune have approached the viral intensity of an Apple product launch. Confirmation finally came in Billboard
with the announcement of "a family of hardware and software products" by Chris Stephenson, general manager of marketing for MSN Entertainment Business. As rumored, the product will ape Apple by integrating a music player with software downloads. But it will also one-up the iPod by offering wi-fi for functions that will include downloading, purchasing, and exchanging songs with a limited number of other users. Not an original idea
, but maybe a powerful one. Stephenson raised several other possibilities without confirming any of them: "The ability to connect the different devices is a key part of the strategy. Whether it's a portable media device, or a phone, or the Xbox or Media Center PC, the idea is you can access your entertainment from anywhere." The music industry, eager for "flexible" pricing, will be happy to release its foie-gras-engorged gut from the 99-cent corset imposed by Steve Jobs and iTunes. Not so pleased are the manufacturers and download services who have licensed Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM. They are effectively frozen out of the new integrated Zune hardware/software environment. Prospects for Zune's survival? Send me one and I'll get back to you.