How a Zune tablet could beat Apple and Android

Microsoft might be shelving the Zune player, but a well-executed Zune tablet could be a game changer.

Zune HD Tablet: Like the Zune HD 'cept bigger.

Back on March 14, Microsoft confirmed plans to discontinue making its Zune player , a device that arrived a little too late to be a successful challenger to Apple's iPod, but nonetheless had plenty of fans. At least enough that Microsoft still sees value in the brand and platform.

According to a statement issued to CNET by a Microsoft representative, it's "absolutely committed to providing the best movies, music, and TV show experiences through Zune on Xbox, the PC, Windows Phone 7, and Zune devices."

It was that last part about Zune devices that got me. While on the surface it could be read as "Microsoft is not going to leave Zune player owners out in the cold," it also left me wondering if a Zune tablet might be in the works. And I'm not talking about tablets from other manufacturers running a Windows OS. I mean a Zune tablet.

But, like the Zune player, is it too late for Microsoft to get in and become a leader in the category instead of a footnote? I don't think so, but it'll have to act fast. Here's what it would take to make a solid entry in the category.

No Windows 7
Windows 7 might be a good computer OS and Windows Phone 7 might be a good mobile platform, but a successful Microsoft tablet will need to be separated from the Windows OS, even if it's just in name. Any tablet running a version of anything with the words "Microsoft Windows" will be thought of as just another Windows PC. Microsoft needs its own iOS, its own Android OS. It needs to drop "Windows" for its tablet operating system and create a Zune OS. A Zune tablet should not be a full PC, so let's keep this OS clean and simple, OK?

Microsoft needs to be the only hardware manufacturer
Just like it did with the Zune player, a Zune tablet needs to strictly come from Microsoft. It makes developing apps easier, rolling out new features simpler, device support better, and kills any fragmentation arguments. The Zune HD is a nice-looking device, so there's proof Microsoft can design attractive hardware. And actually, there's no reason it can't just be a 10-inch Zune HD with an updated OS. After all, didn't everyone call the iPad a supersize iPod Touch?

Zune software for everything
When Microsoft softly killed PlaysForSure with the Zune, it should've made a clean sweep and replaced Windows Media Player with the Zune software. If people buying Windows computers over the past several years had gotten used to using Zune for everything like they do iTunes, there's a good chance Apple wouldn't own the space with its insufferable software. Regardless, the Zune software with the Zune Marketplace is the perfect gateway for media and app purchases and device management for a tablet. Zune Pass' unlimited music streaming already offers something iTunes doesn't and it had a social network built into it before Apple invented social networking. If Microsoft can add in cloud storage for music and video, it would be hard to overlook a Zune tablet.

Full Xbox and Xbox Live integration
Apple iPad users might think they've got the perfect gaming platform, but a Zune tablet with Xbox integration would take it out of the running. Just let your mind run through all the possibilities--starting a game on your Xbox and continuing it on the tablet to using it as a media controller to turning it into a customizable HUD.

Take advantage of Windows Phone 7 apps
I'm not a software developer, but it seems like it wasn't too difficult for iPhone app developers to tweak what they already had to run on the iPad. All the key apps that most people would want to start off with on a tablet are available for Windows Phone 7 and Xbox Live, so a Zune tablet would have no problem out of the gate. Add in easy access to Office Web apps, so Microsoft Office users can see immediate value, and you're set. And before the iPhone users get all "we have 350,000 apps to choose from" on me, everyone knows most of them are crap. And really, think about how many apps you use regularly; I'm sure you can get by with only a couple thousand apps being available at launch.

Needs to be the same price as the iPad
A Zune tablet needs to be seen as a legitimate competitor to the iPad, so selling it for more is out of the question and selling it for less cheapens the product. As long as its performance and specs are on par with the iPad, Microsoft should have no problem moving units.

Needs the same dimensions as the iPad
Is there any reason--legal or otherwise--manufacturers can't make a tablet with the same dimensions as an iPad? I understand that before the iPad came out it would have been difficult to make one, but what's stopping manufacturers from making something the same size now? One of the reasons people like Apple's products are the available accessories, and if you can take advantage of Made for iPad stuff, why wouldn't you? Microsoft couldn't come out and say, "hey, you can use our Zune tablet with iPad cases," but I'm pretty sure people would figure it out on their own.

Standard ports instead of a proprietary connector
That 30-pin proprietary port makes Apple a lot of money, but I've never read or heard anyone say, "I'm so happy it has a proprietary port!" So instead of relying on the Zune's proprietary connector, Microsoft should use three ports: microSD, Micro-HDMI, and Micro-USB. Ports do ugly up devices, so for aesthetics maybe it could have them in a small flip-down bay like that on the Samsung Series 9 laptop. Using all micro versions would allow it to be a fairly small bay and putting the card slot between the two ports would space them far enough apart for cables.

Over-the-air updates and syncing
I know I just made an argument for having ports, but I see no reason why a Zune tablet shouldn't have OTA updates and the ability to do wireless syncing with the Zune software. It's something that's sorely needed in the iPad and would give Microsoft an edge. While I'm at it, add NFC to the list.

Adobe Flash support
This is kind of a no-brainer since its part of every Android fans first salvo against the iPad. However, I agree with a lot of comments that I've read suggesting it should just be something that can be conveniently turned on and off. So, Microsoft, give us Flash, but let us take it away.

That seems like everything that would be pretty crucial to making a good run at Apple and the majority of Android tablets. If I missed something or you think I'm completely insane for thinking Microsoft has a chance, well, that's what comments are for.

 

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