The Zune HD is a strong music player. It's got a lot of features I wish Apple would add to its iPod and iPhone lineup, particularly wireless sync and queuing. But with the impending release of the Windows Phone 7 Series, which will include full Zune HD functionality in its "Music + Video" hub, I've begun to wonder if Microsoft will phase out the Zune as a standalone music player.
Here's one clue: Microsoft developer Michael Klucher on Tuesday put up a blog post about the upcoming XNA Game Studio 4.0. Thus far, XNA Game Studio has been primarily used to develop casual games for the Xbox 360 and, more recently, to create games for the Zune HD. (Elements of the XNA platform are used by big game studios to develop other Xbox games as well, but those developers use a separate Xbox Development Kit available only to licensees.) Long story short, Klucher confirmed that XNA Game Studio 4.0 will support game development on Windows Phone 7 Series phones, but not on the Zune HD. In his words:
Development for the Zune and Zune HD will continue to exist in XNA Game Studio 3.1, however, in XNA Game Studio 4.0, we're encouraging you to migrate your games over to the Windows Phone 7 Series platform.
The code words "encouraging you to migrate" are often Microsoft-ese for "don't say we didn't warn you." Could this mean curtains for the Zune HD?
I talked with Michael Yaeger of the Zune team, and while he emphasized that Windows Phone 7 Series will indeed include the equivalent of a Zune HD in every phone, he also said that Microsoft is "all systems go" on Zune HD production in the U.S. The company still plans to release a Zune HD firmware update this spring with some interesting new features, including Smart DJ and new video codec support. The game development story might change a bit--Microsoft won't encourage amateur developers to make games for the Zune HD, but it might port (or allow developers to port) some popular Windows Phone 7 games back to the Zune HD.
As Yaeger put it, Microsoft views the Zune as a "long tail" product, for the subset of people who want a portable entertainment device separate from their phone. This sounds odd coming from a company that considers new products uninteresting until they earn $1 billion in annual revenue, but I'll take him at his word.
So will Microsoft take the Zune HD worldwide? Here, Yaeger said Microsoft is still mulling it over, which suggests probably not--at least not before the new Windows phones launch. And I'd be very surprised if there's a next-generation Zune HD, although Microsoft could always take a version of Windows Phone 7 Series, strip out the 3G antenna, and sell it under the Zune brand--sort of like Apple does with the iPod Touch.