microsoft “project argo” to take on apple, iPod

July 10, 2006

Engadget, one of the most popular technology sites on the Web (and a personal favorite of mine), has posted the above shot of a device that it claims is part of a Microsoft project to develop a serious competitor to Apple’s iPod, which dominates the digital music landscape. The picture is sourced to “an insider working on the project,” which lends it some degree of credibility–engadget has proven itself rather trustworthy in the past–but, as development is likely still ongoing, we ought to think of this more as a concept than as a finished product.

If this is the direction in which Microsoft is heading, they could certainly be worse off. The device itself is a rather interesting fusion of design elements from current and previous-generation iPods as well as Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 game console (the latter is likely intentional) . If anything, the success of the iPod has reinforced the suitability of a wheel-based navigation system for scanning long lists of music tracks, and its appearance here is a reassuring sign that Microsoft engineers are learning from what has come before. The buttons on the face are evocative of the 3G iPod; Apple dropped them entirely from later iterations in favor of a wheel-only interface, and I can only hope that they are not harbingers of unnecessary interface clutter (an issue to which Apple is seemingly immune).

The Seattle Times also has some interesting information about the project, including that it is closely linked to Microsoft’s new Live Anywhere initiative and that the device will integrate with the company’s upcoming online content service which will compete with Apple’s iTunes, among others. The device will play video as well as music and offer Wi-Fi connectivity for streaming media from the Internet and other networked devices in the home.

As an iPod owner, I am impressed by the level of integration between the player and the software, iTunes; this is a great strength of the platform that will require much ingenuity to overcome if Microsoft is to succeed in turning itself into a major player in the online media and media playback industries. One potentially genius move is Microsoft’s plan to offer iTunes users free downloads of tracks that they have purchased from that service; this essentially removes a great barrier to switching from Apple’s solution to Microsoft’s.

In all, I’m really quite excited to see what Microsoft has in store. The iPod/iTunes hegemony is a force to be reckoned with, but with the enormous resources of Redmond controlling Project Argo’s hardware and software–Microsoft has never developed a media player prior to now–the competition could get fierce. The showdown should begin this Christmas, when the Argo device hits stores, and I will be sure to post about any exciting new developments.

Update 7/11: Engadget has revealed that the device will tentatively be called “Zune,” as shown in the above logo, and will be available in a variety of colors and feature “a brushed metal back with an engraved logo.”

–D. S. W.


4 Responses to “microsoft “project argo” to take on apple, iPod”

  1. Handsome Prince said

    From a business perspective (which is usual for me), Microsoft must equal or improve upon the iPod’s functionality, and give the consumer a reason to switch. The free download offer is a wise start toward accomplishing the latter. The former is a tall order for the latecomer. Apple is once more a legitimate presence in the PC market. Curb [tabletop?] appeal, intelligent marketing, and now OS coexistence with Windows. Amd, if they could get more sofware written for Mac…. I didn’t think they could do it, but I’m pleased they did. The market makes the best rules most of the time.

  2. mrwiz said

    Legitimate presence? Not really. Despite all the hype about switching to Intel and their recent hardware introductions, Apple’s marketshare in the computing space is only 10-15%, with nearly all the rest going to Windows. Not that this really matters when it comes to the iPod/Argo faceoff. Honestly, I’ll be amazed if Microsoft’s able to pull a significant portion of current iPod users over to their side. But hey, I like surprises.

  3. Jonathan Coveney said

    The only reason that Microsoft’s share is so large is that it is the status quo…it hasn’t really done anything worth it’s market share in a LONG time. with the new Mac intel chips, dual booting, and Microsoft’s impotence when it comes to creating anything that isn’t Office 200x, we’ll see how long it takes before its execs start to sweat.

  4. mrwiz said

    Yes, well, this project is ostensibly intended to combat that perception. I certainly agree with your opinion, Jon, but perhaps circumstances that threaten the “status quo” are finally becoming dire enough for Microsoft to take meaningful steps towards diversification of its product offerings and tangible improvements of existing ones.

    X360 has been a rather big success for them lately, and I’m very impressed by the potential of the Live Anywhere service–it was demoed during CES–and of the project detailed above. Microsoft has no lack of talented people who, under the right circumstances, can create great products. We must have faith.

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