David Carnoy over at Crave has already covered the latest crop of Zune rumors first published by TeamXbox. To summarize: the next portable device from Microsoft could combine a digital media player (like Zune) and a portable gaming device (like Sony's PSP or Nintendo's DS lineup) in a single device with a high-def touch screen. TeamXbox goes a little dreamy with the speculation, suggesting that this gadget might have built-in WiMax and connectivity to the MyPhone data storage and synchronization services that Microsoft announced for Windows Mobile 6.5.
The company isn't talking, but I can easily believe that Microsoft's going to release some sort of combination Xbox-Zune device. Here's why.
Some time in 2007, J Allard--who headed the Xbox business as it was starting up and is credited with much of Microsoft's success beating back Sony in the console space--moved into a new job and disappeared from public view. His job duties include coordinating product development across the whole Entertainment & Devices group (that's Xbox, Zune, Windows Mobile, and Windows Media Center, among other things), and overseeing incubation of new products. I can't imagine he's parked in some pasture somewhere--the guy's too smart and well-regarded at Microsoft, and has actual direct reports. I've heard rumors his team was looking into portable gaming devices but abandoned their plans. I've heard rumors that his team was designing the interface for the "Zune phone." But publicly--the cone of silence has been in place.
Flash-forward a couple years. Beginning in late 2008, Microsoft split the Zune team apart into two: hardware and software-plus-services. (CNET's Ina Fried broke the news in February.) As the TeamXbox article suggests, and Microsoft's rhetoric constantly reminds the world, the company sees software-plus-services as its future. The manager in charge of the Zune software-plus-services is Craig Eisler, and his official duties include creating a new platform for enabling the playback of digital media across Windows, Windows Mobile, and Xbox.
There's the key: Microsoft is taking the Zune software and services and making them the delivery and playback mechanism for digital media across all its products. I wrote about this before, in the context of the Zune Marketplace moving to the Xbox.
But why not integrate in the other direction as well--take gaming to the Zune?
Here's what I think happened. Allard's group has been incubating. Now, the incubation period is done, and the latest reorganization is getting teams in place to churn out actual, sellable products. The first such product would be the Zune HD/xYz/Xbox-Zune device we're hearing about now, which could come out as early as fall 2009. The second such product would be the "Zune phone," manufactured by third parties (probably HTC and LG) and featuring design specs similar to the Zune HD. That will probably have to wait for Windows Mobile 7, which means it won't be out until next year.
Regarding the WiMax speculation--it's not that outlandish. Samsung announced a WiMax touchscreen device in March. TeamXbox notes that the only WiMax phone available now is made by HTC--and guess who's responsbile for manufacturing more than 80 percent of the Windows Mobile phones shipped so far?
Of course, I'm compelled to note that we've heard this all before...more than two years ago, in fact, another publication wrote about a well-placed source who swore Microsoft would announce a WiMax-enabled Zune phone in March 2007. Didn't happen.