Is Microsoft set to sing a different tune when it comes to music players?
Published reports indicate Microsoft is developing a music player of its own to compete directly with Apple's best-selling iPod.
If Microsoft did make such a move, it would be a major shift in direction from its current strategy of only supporting third-party manufacturers of music players, such as Creative Labs and iRiver, much as it supplies PC makers with its Windows software.
Microsoft has already briefed entertainment industry executives on its plans for a music and video player, according to a report today in the New York Times. The device supposedly sports an advanced display and wireless features that make it unnecessary to use a PC to download music.
A Microsoft spokesperson said reports of the company making its own music player are "based on speculation and rumors. We donít have anything to announce at this time."
But if the reports are true, the news might not be all bad for Microsoft's current partners.
"I talked to one music player maker who said he wouldn't necessarily be bothered by Microsoft's entry," said Tim Bajarin, analyst with Creative Strategies. "He said if Microsoft's entry grows the market for players, which is still small on a worldwide basis, he'd welcome it."
Still, Bajarin and other analysts are convinced Microsoft would have to release a blockbuster player and music service to compete with Apple, which dominates portable music player sales.
"It's not a slam dunk," said Bajarin. "Apple still always outshines Microsoft on ease of use and interface design. If Microsoft does release something you can be sure it won't be a chintzy MP3 player, but a portable entertainment platform."
Bajarin and JupiterKagan analyst Joe Wilcox note that current Windows media players don't synch files as easily as the iPod and are harder to use.
"You plug anything into Windows and it launches a wizard with a bunch of effects," said Wilcox. "Apple's approach, 'plug it in, it synchs and you're ready to go,' is what the vast majority of users want. Microsoft isn't there yet."
If Microsoft does design its own media player, it won't be the first hardware system its designed and sold under its name. "The XBox is a classic example of following Apple's integrated architecture approach," noted Wilcox.
One of the advantages Apple has with iPod and its iTunes music store is that it controls the hardware and software design. Microsoft, by contrast, has to support a multitude of hardware manufacturers and can't always move as nimbly with updates or changes.
Said Wilcox: "With XBox Microsoft has shown when it controls all the end points it can deliver a pretty good user experience."