Every so often, a company pioneers a new type of product and its brand name becomes synonymous with that idea - the Hoover vacuum cleaner, the Shuttle small form factor PC, and of course the Apple iPod portable music player.

But ubiquity is never assured, and Microsoft has clear plans to tackle Apple's dominance in the portable media player market before it extends to portable video playing as well. Its answer is Zune - not so much a pocket device, more a way of life, and launched in the US today (November 14th).

The Zune name doesn't just refer to the portable player, but also to an entire content delivery system called the Zune Marketplace, which sounds suspiciously like a direct Microsoft competitor for iTunes.

Many of the features of the Zune Marketplace look like a rebranding of existing Windows Media DRM capabilities. You will be able to buy individual music tracks, or purchase a monthly Zune Pass subscription, which will allow unlimited downloads to the Zune device in much the same vein as the current Napster To Go.

Again, like iTunes, the Zune Marketplace also involves software for your desktop system, although in this case it is (unsurprisingly) Windows only.

It's all about sharing

There will be distinct community feel to the shop, too, so the power of user recommendation will drive content purchasing. This sounds an awful lot like what Napster tries to do, and Myspace does so well.

The community feel also extends to the Zune device, which will include the ability to share Zune files with other Zunes, allowing the recipient to play them three times over three days and then the tracks will be bookmarked for purchase. But if you're a Zune Pass subscriber, you won't have this restriction.

Microsoft has already announced deals with DTS, EMI Music's Astralwerks Records and Virgin Records, Ninja Tune, Playlouderecordings, Quango Music Group, Sub Pop Records and V2/Artemis Records. The device will even come preloaded with content from some of these providers.

However, the range of movie content available for the Zune remains obscure, although the device itself is clearly aimed at video as well as audio, with support for WMV, MPEG-4 and H.264.

Zune to be revealed

In the US, the Zune is selling for a princely $250 on www.amazon.com , the same as the iPod 30GB. The first Zune device contains a 30GB hard disk and operates through a 3-inch screen with a 320 x 240 resolution and sufficient response rate for video playback.

Zune has built-in Wi-Fi wireless connectivity for sharing media between Zunes, plus an FM tuner, but no DAB. Colour choices comprise black, white and brown. This device is just the beginning, though, with a portable gaming derivative rumoured to be a future member of the Zune range.

A similar selection of accessories is available to Apple's iPods, including in-car, travel and AV kits. These operate through a proprietary port on the Zune device.

Zune add-ons

The Car Pack includes an FM tuner with AutoSeek and a car charger, the Home A/V Pack offers a docking station with a wireless remote and AV connectivity, and the Travel Pack earphones, a sync cable, and carry bag. Third parties like Altec Lansing, Belkin, Griffin Technology, Harman Kardon, JBL, Jamo, Logitech, and Targus are working on peripherals, too, so expect to see a range of portable speakers and suchlike.

However, there is controversy over Zune's incompatibility with content bought from stores other than the Zune Marketplace itself. Indeed, apart from Zune tracks only unprotected files can be imported into the Zune system, which cuts out content from the likes of Napster even though it uses Microsoft's own Windows Media DRM.

Surprisingly, Zune is not part of the PlaysForSure initiative. It's another new Microsoft system.

Microsoft Zune: at a glance

  • Zune branding includes player, Windows media management software, and Zune Marketplace online shopping site
  • Initial Zune player sports 30GB hard disk, 3-inch 320 x 240 screen, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, built-in FM receiver with RDS
  • Support for H.264, MP3, WMA, WMV, MPEG4, AAC and JPEG files
  • Not PlaysForSure compatible - cannot import protected files from other download stores such as Napster or iTunes
  • Portable Zune gaming device planned

Reporting by James Morris