The ink on last year’s Microsoft Zune press releases was barely dry when speculation started about a Zune Phone egged on by CEO Steve Ballmer. Now the rumors are heating up again after John Letzing at MarketWatch spotted a likely FCC filing. However, reading the fine print reveals a strange duck that is “an orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) device to be used for ‘consumer broadband access and networking.’” The general suspicion is that this means WiMAX which is a high bandwidth wireless technology that is just getting off the ground. To add to the mystery, Google, HP, and Intel are listed as a supporters of the FCC application.
However, Matt Hickey at CrunchGear fans the flames with the speculation that a Zune phone would run on a high speed 4G WiMAX network like the one to be built by Sprint/Nextel. This lash-up could provide a mobile VoIP offering plus the likely ability to use ordinary Wi-Fi hotspots. Even better, CrunchGear’s inside sources say that the Zune phone will be announced in March and shipped in May thus neatly upstaging Apple’s iPhone.
All of this is certainly exciting, but the idea of a Zune Phone brings up the more fundamental question of where it would leave Microsoft’s Windows Mobile partners who are ready to show off their new Windows Mobile 6 handsets next week at 3GSM. Microsoft’s Zune crew apparently has license to run roughshod over other parts of Microsoft and their partnerships as evidenced by the hapless PlaysForSure partners (e.g. Creative Technologies, iRiver, Samsung) who got blindsided by the Zune portable media player itself last year. A Zune Phone in whatever form hits right at the phone vendors who have signed up for Windows Mobile (e.g. Samsung, Palm, HTC, Motorola, LG) just when it was showing signs of success, at least in the USA. Beyond the technical particulars, the real Zune Phone question then is whether Microsoft is willing yet again to shutter one of their own projects and cannibalize their partners’ markets in favor of rolling their own.
Update: Microsoft says FCC filing not Zune-related. Fair enough, but as long as the Zune Phone remains a possibility there will still be an inherent conflict with Windows Mobile.