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Microsoft's Zune looks to cut the cord

Microsoft confirms its first Zune device will arrive this year, but speculation is rampant about how good it will really be. Photos: PlaysForSure devices

With much about Microsoft's iPod rival still shrouded in secrecy, its wireless capability stands out as something novel to take on Apple Computer.

Microsoft confirmed Friday that it will launch its first Zune device this year, but the company offered few details other than confirming there will be a Wi-Fi connection.

The software giant hasn't even specified the purpose of the wireless connection in the Zune device. In an interview with Billboard magazine, Microsoft general manager Chris Stephenson said the company is still considering seven or eight "scenarios," including using the Wi-Fi connection for direct music downloads and sampling music from other nearby listeners.

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It's unclear how much attention Microsoft will still put on its PlaysForSure program.

"They are being coy," said Gartner analyst Michael McGuire. Regardless of how Microsoft uses wireless abilities for the Zune, McGuire says the key will be how easy or difficult the gadget is for consumers to use. For example, designing an interface that enables downloading music from a catalog without using a keyboard is tricky.

"That's going to require a nuanced and very deep understanding of user interface," McGuire said.

Microsoft is not the first company to tout a wireless future for music players. Chipmaker PortalPlayer has talked about the potential of wireless features for some time, but executives said it would probably take until this year for such players to emerge. And MusicGremlin recently hit the market with a player that can download subscription music content wirelessly.

MusicGremlin co-CEO Robert Khedouri said the whole industry is headed in this direction.

"We just see it as the logical next step in where these devices are going," Khedouri said in a telephone interview. "In the future, the consumer is going to expect to have access to their media on a variety of devices and they are going to want a way to get their media without having to go back to their PC."

PlaysForSure devices

Microsoft could get a competitive advantage if it can be the first big-name company to offer a wireless device. An open question, though, is whether Apple is planning any sort of wireless iPod this year.

While adding wireless abilities could give the Zune a leg up on Apple, it also presents technological challenges. Rivals already struggle to compete with the simplicity of the iPod, analysts say.

"Will the technology work smoothly, without crashing?" asked IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. "There are really serious usability concerns in this context that haven't fully been tested."

MusicGremlin's Khedouri said that companies tend to underestimate the challenges when it comes to adding wireless capabilities to portable players.

"It's very easy to create a wireless device," he said. "It's very difficult to make it work and connect in the way that a lot of people envision."