ZunehdMicrosoft has struggled for some time with its Zune portable media device, but with the latest iteration — the Zune HD — it seems to have finally figured out how to differentiate the device from the iPod. Now Microsoft may be setting its sights on the iPhone by delivering a smartphone version of the Zune powered by Windows Mobile.

Speculation of a new mobile platform from Microsoft has been swirling about since 2008, but now it seems that we may finally get some truth on the matter. While poking around the latest Zune driver, Windows newshound Long Zhen discovered several references to new Zune devices, as well as a “phone” descriptor.

Zhen points to several lines within the latest Zune.inf driver file:

%Zune.DeviceDesc% = ZuneMTPZUSB, USBMS_COMP_MTPZ
%Zune.DeviceDesc% = ZuneMTPZUSB, USBVID_045E&PID_0710
%Zune.DeviceDesc% = ZuneMTPZUSB, USBVID_045E&PID_063E
%Phone.DeviceDesc% = ZuneMTPZUSB, USBVID_045E&PID_0640
%Phone.DeviceDesc% = ZuneMTPZUSB, USBVID_045E&PID_0641
%Phone.DeviceDesc% = ZuneMTPZUSB, USBVID_045E&PID_0642
uneIp.DeviceDesc% = ZuneMTPZIP, umburn:microsoft-com:device:mtpz:1
; Localizable strings
Msft = “Microsoft”
Zune.DeviceDesc = “Zune”

Phone.DeviceDesc = “Phone”

The first three device lines point to the current three generations of Zune devices, but the next three point to something else entirely. Since they introduce new Product IDs (PID), it’s unlikely that they’re just different capacity variations of current Zune models. The best assumption is that these are entirely new devices.

This revelation also fits in with rumors that we’ve been hearing about Microsoft announcing Windows Mobile 7 and new devices within the next few months — either at the Mobile World Congress event in February, or at CTIA in March. Word is that the new devices will be based on the Zune HD’s software, won’t run Windows Mobile 6 code, and will focus on games and multimedia. This lends some credence to the rumors VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi recently covered about Microsoft combining Xbox Live and Windows Mobile.

More so than just being a “Zune phone”, it appears that Microsoft is aiming to consolidate all of its greatest services into one mobile platform. This could be what the company’s been aiming at with Project Pink all along — although if that’s the case, I wonder what took them so long to make it happen. This year’s CES was wide open for Microsoft to dominate, just like Palm did last year with the Pre.

At the same time, it’s still a better release schedule than the “late 2010” we’ve previously been hearing for Windows Mobile 7. If Microsoft can really push out a new mobile platform within a few months, it’ll be poised to meet Apple’s next generation iPhone head-on in the middle of the year and better fight the growing Android threat.

Microsoft could finally make Windows Mobile matter once again.