Swan song for Microsoft's music allies?

news analysis Some say Microsoft's Zune player means an end to Windows Media PlaysForSure partner program. Photos: PlaysForSure devices

Microsoft's Zune player is designed to be a counterpunch to the iPod, but it could deliver a sharper blow to some of the company's longtime partners.

For years, Microsoft has been trying to combat Apple Computer's music system by offering a technology that can be used on an array of devices and be mutually compatible with several subscription and pay-per-download sites. Now, however, the software maker is singing another tune.

Confirming months of speculation, the software maker said Friday that it plans to enter the market with its own Zune-branded music player and software. It leaves one question up in the air, however: Just how much attention will now go to Microsoft's PlaysForSure program, which promotes the broad range of services and players that use its Windows Media technology?

Microsoft says it is not abandoning that 2-year-old effort. But it has not said whether its new player will support outside music services that use the Windows Media format, or whether any Zune service will work on outside players. On top of that, it has certainly not played up compatibility in what it has to say about Zune.

"Any experience, whether it is device (or) service (or) software, will be tightly integrated," a Microsoft representative told CNET News.com.

Company executives have indicated dissatisfaction with the experience provided by existing players and services, as well as with the market impact those products have had.

"We do need a more consistent experience," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a January interview. "That doesn't mean it's bad to have a variety of devices. I think that's great. But there are some things we need to make sure are more consistently delivered across the portable devices."

Not all the blame can be leveled at hardware makers and service providers, according to IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. "Finger-pointing can go both ways in this kind of a situation," she said.

Regardless of who is to blame, some analysts have said the arrival of Zune signals an end to the company's broad-based partner approach.

"Even though Microsoft still talks about the diversity of the Windows platform as an overall advantage, let's face it: The platform argument is dead, and licensees will have to deal with it," JupiterResearch analyst Michael Gartenberg said on his blog Friday.

Microsoft denies things are so black-and-white. The software maker said it will continue to promote other products that have Windows Media technology at their core.

"As a company, we remain committed to the strategy," a Microsoft representative said on Monday. "There's room for both kinds of approaches."

PlaysForSure devices

Device maker iRiver said it is not convinced that having to compete with its technology partner will be a bad thing.

Jonathan Sasse, iRiver America's chief executive, said all of Apple's investment in recent years has created a huge market for such devices, even if rivals have grabbed only a fraction of that opportunity.

"The entire industry grew," Sasse said in a telephone interview. "It's not unreasonable that we might see something similar."

Sasse said that he would be more concerned if Microsoft seemed like it was going to create a $200 player that offered little different from today's devices, but had a ton of marketing behind it.

Microsoft has only talked about one device for the holiday season. It also said that the device will have built-in wireless technology--and wireless is not something that iRiver offers today or was counting on for the holidays.

"I don't really expect a broad product-lineup to be coming out on day one," Sasse said of Microsoft's launch.

That said, whatever Microsoft's first product is, Sasse said it is liable to compete directly with an existing device.

"I imagine they are going to land squarely on somebody," he said.

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