Microsoft will release iPod rival this year

Microsoft confirmed it will ship competitive offerings to Apple Computer's tremendously successful iPod and iTunes digital music products sometime this year.

In an e-mailed statement, the company said that under a new brand, called "Zune," it will deliver "a family of hardware and software products" that will "bring together technology and community to allow consumers to explore and discover music together."

The company has set up a Web site, http://comingzune.com, where users can sign themselves or friends up for a newsletter providing information about Zune. The site features animation set to a song called "Us" by Regina Spektor.

Microsoft did not give specific information on exactly how the new products will work together, but said it plans to help build a community for connecting customers to new music and other entertainment in addition to offering new hardware and software.

"It's probably safe to say that this project will place Microsoft in path with iPod/iTunes at some points, but Zune is a much broader, holistic project," the company said via e-mail.

Microsoft also declined to say whether it will design and sell the hardware itself, as it does with its Xbox game consoles, or use a third party.

However, Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group said the company will indeed design and sell the initial Zune hardware, which he said will be "a music player with a large video screen." Microsoft also will allow third parties to license Zune technology so they can offer their own hardware as long as it is consistent with the original user experience.

Enderle also shed some light on what that experience may be. According to him, Zune will be "artist-driven," so recording artists will have a lot of freedom in designing the user interface for their music.

But until Microsoft fully reveals Zune, which he expects the company to do in September, October or November, it's hard to tell exactly how users will interact with Zune, Enderle acknowledged.

Speculation has been brewing for some time that Microsoft was planning an iPod "killer," but the company had remained mum on the subject until Friday.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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