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.

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The idea that Microsoft would simply build cell phone electronics into a big Zune and try to compete with Apple is truly absurd and would be a lousy idea. Microsoft is better off supporting its handset partners with its Windows Mobile OS, rather than embarrassing itself with an "iPhone killer" that ends up only killing itself.

The 'insanely great' Zune phone you'll never see

The reason the iPhone shocked the handset market and rocketed to the No. 1 handset make-and-model in the world is that the iPhone introduced a totally new way to use a cell phone. The third-generation UI really was different, and everyone loves something new and exhilarating.

The iPhone is great, but it's not perfect. In fact, it's pretty big and clumsy to hold, gets horrible battery life and often gets poor 3G reception. These flaws represent opportunities for Microsoft.

Microsoft could and should build a Zune phone, and one that introduces a totally new way to use a phone. Instead of an "iPhone killer," Microsoft could sell an "anti-iPhone" using the Zune form factor. No, not the big, iPhone-size, hard-disk-based Zune form factor. The tiny flash-based Zune 16.

The Zune is, in fact, pretty cool. The player has a bad reputation mainly because Apple iPods are so great and so dominant. It's like being the second best golfer after Tiger Woods. You're almost the best in the world but nobody cares.

The Flash-based Zune is smaller than the smallest major smart phone (the BlackBerry Pearl). It has just three controls on the front: A small Back button, an equally small Play/Pause button and a very large Zune pad, which is a touchpad that works also as a physical button. These buttons control the Zune user interface, which is a lot like the Windows Media Center UI.

Zune's minimalist controls are plenty for a phone, especially one augmented by voice commands.

Microsoft co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates is constantly talking about how voice command is the future of computing. He's been saying this for years. I'd like to see him shut up about it and actually ship something.

A primarily voice-based Zune would launch the Zune phone into an alternative future, an alternative to the third-generation UI future envisioned by Apple.

Such a Zune phone would be an ideal alternative to the iPhone-inspired universe of giant, clumsy phones with poor battery life. Because of its small screen and simplicity, such a phone should get two or three days of use -- much better than the iPhone's.

Unfortunately, this vision of the Zune phone -- a sleek, simple, functional phone -- is one you'll never see from Microsoft, because the company just doesn't do sleek, simple and functional.

The most likely Zune phone, or "Pink" or "Danger-like" phone-centric CES announcement will be more of what Microsoft has been giving us for years: a confusing muddle of bloated initiatives nobody wants.

Too bad. I'd love a real Zune phone.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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