Digital music software and player driving to Apple core

Microsoft on Thursday revealed new details about its Zune digital music software and player that it will unveil this holiday season to challenge Apple’s ultra-successful iTunes/iPod combo.

Zune is, by and large, aimed at matching the capabilities of Apple’s digital music products. Online musicstore and portable device are designed to work together seamlessly, with a library of more than 2 million songs available for 99¢ each or, in a service Apple doesn’t offer, via monthly subscription expected to cost $10 per month.

Although Zune will launch with a color screen larger than the video iPod, Microsoft is not offering any TV shows or movies for download at launch. The tech giant is known to be talking to studios and networks about adding their content, most likely next year.

Apple has been selling TV shows since last October, and this week started selling movies from Disney (Daily Variety, Sept. 13).

One advantage Zune will have over the iPod is wireless capabilities. Users will be able to send songs they own to friends who have a Zune via wireless connection. The person receiving the song can then listen to it three times in up to three days before deciding whether to buy it.

Ability to share content will be a key component of Zune, which Microsoft is marketing as a community experience with the tagline “Welcome to the social.”

Company previously has licensed its Windows Media software to other musicstores and manufacturers. But they have failed to slow the momentum of iTunes, which has sold more than 1.5 billion songs, and iPod, which has shipped more than 60 million units.

In the past year, Microsoft decided the only way to get a foothold in the consumer digital entertainment biz, which execs consider crucial, was to design and market a player and musicstore itself.

Company emphasized that the first generation of Zune products, which will launch in time for the holidays at an as-yet-unannounced price, will change significantly via software and hardware upgrades. Insiders expect that in the future, users will have the ability to buy music directly via the wireless connection, as well as to integrate Zune with other Microsoft products, such as the Xbox 360 videogame system.

In a recent speech, Microsoft prexy of entertainment and devices Robbie Bach said the tech giant likely will invest several hundred million dollars over the next few years to establish Zune in the marketplace.

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