Goodness gracious me, the rumours were true! Microsoft will be going head to head with Apple and the iPod/iTunes partnership. The big M will be launching a media player called the Zune towards the end of the year thugh, obviously, it declined to give details. Wireless, maybe. Cross-platform compatible, possibly. A sure-fire winner? Well, that’s more tricky though M is applying the skills of J Allard, who has done a pretty damn good job with the Xbox.

M is also likely to launch a digital music service to tie in with the Zune (singing in Zune/staying in Zune?), to try and emulate the iPod/iTunes relationship. The problems are multiple though as M doesn’t have complete control over the platform in the saem way that Apple does and how will its technology partners – Napster et al, feel about having their ‘partner’ come and start land grabbing? When even the Yahoo Music Unlimited offering, with its very low price point, can’t make a dent in the iTunes dominance, what can Microsoft offer?

The subscription model is defintely the way of the future with music being much more of a all-encompasing service rather than a product as the music labels would have it. That’ll be one advantage M might have. The emergence of non-DRM MP3 tracks as announced earlier this week? That might help also but fundamentally it’s the simplicity and style that Apple has brought to the digital music player market that has really driven its success. Certainly not the pricing, the DRM restrictions or features – players in all of those categories have better offerings.

In the words of Mr David Pogue – simple sells. Can M resist the lures of extra feature and integration and have a player that works everywhere and with everyone?

If you’d like to follow the project, there’s an insider’s blog tracking the holisitc project’s development.

Engadget is getting very excited about it all but true to form has all facts and a few speculations. Interstingly, they’re reporting that Zune will be in no way connected to Plays4Sure – in terms of compatibility or departmental relations.