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Is Microsoft’s Zune Buggy a Threat to Apple?

Microsoft has to be judged guilty of using some of the worst code names in the business. Windows Vista, for example, was originally known as Longhorn, as if some sort of Texas steer would convey images of a world-class personal computer operating system. So it was only natural that Microsoft’s latest effort — and I’ve lost count how many times they’ve tried — to compete with the iPod garners another oddball name.

So what’s a Zune? Well, the authors of the dictionary that Apple provides with Mac OS X Tiger didn’t have an answer, and before I settled on “zany,” I decided to do a little research and here’s what I came up with on Google:

“What is Zune? Zune is an object-oriented GUI toolkit. It is nearly a clone (at both API and Look&Feel level) of MUI, a well-known Amiga shareware product by Stefan Stuntz.”

So what, pray tell, does an “object-oriented GUI toolkit” have to do with a fancy music player that’s supposed to knock the socks off the iPod? Well, could it be that Microsoft went back to the Amiga era to find a software development scheme for its new device?

In the larger scheme of things, Microsoft’s variation on the Zune theme is both a hardware and software combination, in a fashion similar to Apple, I suppose, but details are light. So-called “analysts” are saying that the device will have built-in Wi-Fi which, as you might imagine, will seriously impair its battery life. But this is all speculation.

What isn’t speculation is that, if this product does see the light of day, and that’s never a certainty with Microsoft, which only seems to be able to deliver excuses to explain why a product is being delayed still further these days, it could represent a possible real competitor to Apple.

You see, Apple is presently alone in providing the integrated approach. Today, Microsoft simply licenses its own DRM with the “PlaysForSure” description to third party companies, in a fashion reminiscent of the way it licenses its operating system to PC box builders. When it comes to music, that approach, and such abject failures as MSN Music, hasn’t worked so well. So Microsoft, never known for its innovative ways, except as a buzzword for its management to use at a press conference or antitrust hearing, decided on another path to imitation as a form of flattery or market dominance.

Now before you trash Microsoft’s abilities in that area, let’s not forget that the Xbox is a pretty snazzy device. Microsoft also produces some pretty nice input devices, so maybe there’s potential here if the company’s people were allowed to actually create something unfettered by corporate incompetence. On the other hand, a fancy faceplate and decent user interface, both online and on the device itself, may not be sufficient to overcome a cultural icon.

And, lest we forget, Microsoft isn’t very capable of designing compelling user interfaces, and I don’t think a crash course is going to make much difference. Of course, they could attempt hire some former Apple employees but that’s not going to change Microsoft’s infamous corporate culture.

But regardless of what Microsoft does, it won’t sit well with the company’s hardware partners who are now struggling unsuccessfully to compete with Apple. What would the likes of Creative, iRiver, Samsung and the rest of the bunch think when the company that provides its DRM to them has also become their competitor for the actual players?

In the end, some say the also-rans are the ones who have the most to fear from Microsoft’s latest maneuver to gain traction in the digital music world. At the same time, there is still no product, just a promise. More Microsoft vaporware is not going to unseat the iPod. Microsoft is going to have to back up its words with results this time, and that is not going to be such an easy task, despite what some eager, beaver analysts might think.