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Elgan: Why you'll never see a real 'Zune phone'

A Zune phone could be 'insanely great.' Too bad Microsoft isn't smart enough to make one.

December 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A rumor circulating this week says Microsoft will unveil a Zune phone at CES. Most columnists and bloggers who mentioned it said Microsoft should not build a Zune phone, but probably will.

My view is that Microsoft should sell a Zune phone, but probably won't.

Why? Because the company simply doesn't have the vision to build something really great in the consumer electronics space.

The Zune phone rumor

When the Zune-phone-at-CES rumor hit, bloggers and pundits speculated that the company would target Apple, which people think created a phone based on the iPod (in fact, they did the reverse). Commentators initially imagined a phone that looks and works like one of the larger hard-disk-based Zunes, but with cell phone functionality.

That idea fizzled when Brian Seitz, Microsoft Zune group manager, told Gizmodo that no Zune phone will be unveiled at CES.

Now the rumor-monger consensus is that Microsoft will instead unveil a project code-named "Pink," which is software that puts Zune functionality on a Windows Mobile device, including the playing of media and easy access to the Zune Marketplace.

Another popular idea is that Microsoft will unveil a Danger Sidekick device at CES that's all Pinked out and sold as a music phone. Microsoft acquired Danger earlier this year.

Either way, the addition of Zune-like software to existing phones doesn't add up to a bona fide Zune phone.

What's wrong with a Zune 'iPhone killer'?

The idea that Microsoft would jam cell phone electronics into one of its larger Zunes, then compete head-to-head with the iPhone, ignores the categorical difference between devices like the iPod Touch and the Zune.

Most people agree that the iPhone user interface is "better" than, say, the UI on RIM BlackBerries or Palm Treos. But you can't understand what's great about the iPhone unless you also understand that it has a categorically better UI, not just a qualitatively better one.

The iPhone is a third-generation UI device. (No, I'm not talking about 3G mobile broadband, which is unrelated to the user interface of the device.) The first generation was the command line. The second generation was the WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointing device) UI, which still exists on Windows Vista and Mac OS X Leopard. The iPod classic and all Zunes, as well as all other media players, have WIMP user interfaces.

The iPhone was revolutionary because it was built around the world's first-ever, publicly available third-generation user interface. Other examples of this UI include Microsoft's Surface table-top PC and CNN's election-coverage "Magic Wall."

This third-generation UI involves multitouch, of course, and also gestures (shapes you draw on screen send commands to the system), physics (objects move as if they have mass and momentum), 3-D and the minimization of menus. Within five years, all new PCs running either Windows or the Mac OS will have this kind of UI, and the mouse will become a thing of the past.

So comparing the Zune UI to the iPod Touch UI isn't like comparing AM radio to FM radio. It's like comparing radio to television.



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