Microsoft Zune device to ship in time for Christmas

Microsoft's iPod rival Zune will be out in the US in time for the Christmas shopping season.

The first Microsoft Zune products -- the company's answer to Apple's iPod, will hit retailers in time for the busy Christmas holiday season, with a 30GB digital media player and a Zune Marketplace online service the first to reach consumers, Microsoft said Thursday.

However, at this stage, the Zune will only be available to US customers. No announcement of an Australian release has been made yet.

The details of what Microsoft is offering with its Zune product line -- which will compete with Apple's iPod device and iTunes software and service -- sound similar to what Apple already offers, with a couple of exceptions. In addition to allowing users to play music, videos and photos on a screen, the Zune player will include wireless technology and a built-in FM radio tuner. So far, iPods lack either radio tuners or built-in wireless technology.

Zune's wireless technology will allow users to share songs, playlists and photos between Zune devices, Microsoft said. A user can listen to any song they receive up to three times over three days, after which they must purchase it from the Zune Marketplace if they wish to continue listening.

The Zune Marketplace, like iTunes, allows users to purchase media and manage their own media libraries. Users can purchase music tracks individually or buy what is called a Zune Pass, a subscription service allowing users to download as many songs as they want for a monthly fee.

The Zune device will come in three colors -- black, brown and white. In addition to viewing media on the 3-inch screen, users also can customise the screen with personal photos or themes, Microsoft said.

In another deviation from Apple's plan, Zune devices will come preloaded with content from record labels. Labels that are teaming with Microsoft to provide music for the players include TS, EMI Music's Astralwerks Records and Virgin Records, Ninja Tune, Playlouderecordings, Quango Music Group, Sub Pop Records and V2/Artemis Records.

After months of speculation, Microsoft confirmed in July that it was developing a music player and service to rival Apple's iPod and iTunes.

If other attempts to unseat the iPod are any indication, Microsoft will have a tough road ahead. Recently, Dell stopped selling its DJ Ditty music player on its website and ended development of its own line of music players.

Still, iPod market share has fallen in the past year, leaving room for rivals in the market. At one point the music player had more than 80 per cent market share by analysts estimates, but the latest reports give the iPod a little over 70 per cent market share.

In addition to the devices and the online service, Microsoft also will offer three Zune accessory packs that will be sold separately and will be available at the same time as the Zune devices.

The Zune Car Pack includes a built-in FM tuner with AutoSeek and the Zune Car Charger. The Zune Home A/V Pack includes five products that integrate Zune with a television and music speakers: Zune AV Output Cable, Zune Dock, Zune Sync Cable, Zune AC Adapter and the Zune Wireless Remote for Zune Dock. And the Zune Travel Pack offers five products for traveling with the Zune device: Zune Premium Earphones, Zune Dual Connect Remote, Zune Gear Bag, Zune Sync Cable and the Zune AC Adapter.

Like Apple, Microsoft also is working with accessory manufacturers to provide more add-on products for Zune devices. Among the companies with whom Microsoft is teaming are Altec Lansing, Belkin, Digital Lifestyle Outfitters, Dual Electronics, Griffin Technology, Harman Kardon and JBL, Integrated Mobile Electronics, Jamo International, Klipsch Audio Technologies, Logitech, Monster Cable Products, Speck, Targus Group International and VAF Research.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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