Going mobile with video is looking sexier all the time. So far, we’ve been watching:

Apple’s lovely new iPods, all with component video out
An HP gaming device from the future (which may never show up, but could also be implemented on the proliferating embedded Linux mobile boxes around)

Now, Microsoft has given the Zune a badly-needed upgrade. The best part: real video support. I’m waiting on my contacts at Apple for more details, but Paul Thurrott beat me to the video specs, so here they are from him:

About Zune 2.0 video compatibility

Here’s the story: Like the iPod classic, the new Zune 4, 8, and 80 support H.264, MPEG-4, and WMV formats up to 640 x 480 natively. This means you can load a 640 x 480 (or whatever) H.264 movie on to the Zune and it won’t have to transcode it to a 320 x [whatever] format, as was (and is) the case with the Zune 30. This is great news. On the device’s screen, video will be scaled down to QVGA (320 x 240) as you’d expect, and if you use TV Out, you get full fidelity. Excellent.

You’ll want to avoid the Zune 30 — the old model — as it evidently has an ARM chip that can only take 320×240.

Zune on H.264

But this is obviously a big win for our favorite format, H.264 (and MPEG-4, as well); Apple has done a good job of championing these formats and supporting them in QuickTime, but to really make a format successful, we need support beyond one company.

And for the mobile visualist, it means the Zune is yet another choice. My only concern is, when I last checked, the Zune connects only with Windows machines, and not even via Microsoft’s own preferred connection mechanism, MTP. I had an extended discussion last year with a Microsoft engineer responsible for the MTP format, which can be implemented on non-Microsoft platforms:

MTP, Portable Player Standard? Microsoft’s McLauchlan Sets Us Straight [Create Digital Music]

MTP appears to exist in the old Zune, but it’s hidden, as noted by our friends at the MAKE:blog. They do point to a way of getting around this, one I suspect would even allow the Zune to work with MTP implementations on Mac and Linux. But this hack could change with the new devices. (Even better would be if Microsoft just supported their own format on MTP, which can be used for simple, non-DRM transfers without violating the integrity of DRM — so those of us who don’t care about using DRMed files can just go ahead and use the gadget normally.)

HOW TO – Copy data off a Microsoft Zune (use as a hard drive) [MAKE:blog]

There is new wireless sync, so I don’t know if we’ll be able to hack that to wirelessly load videos onto Zune, which would be very lovely.

But if you’re allergic to iPods, or don’t care about using Windows to load up your video files, this could be a good option. I hope to get my hands on a Zune to try it out as a visualist gadget. Of course, where things would get interesting is to combine these with computers, perhaps via multi-projector setups, and even try feeding them into DIY analog-processing gadgets.

Open Zune?

This is likely the point where you say, “But, Peter, I don’t particularly care about built-in FM radio reception, wireless sync, or Zune social networking, so isn’t this basically identical to the equivalent iPods at the same price point?” To which I would say: uh, yes, actually, looks that way.

Hmmm… if only… if only Microsoft had a way of differentiating itself, of being the Un-Apple. Apple has defined itself by locking down the iPod, preventing development. Microsoft is the Windows Mobile company, the “third-party developer ecosystem” company.

You know where I’m going with this. If Microsoft really wants to make a splash, they’ll release an SDK alongside the Zune in November. And then we’ll whip up some VJ app and go play their parties, I guess. Yeah, I know, unlikely: but I can dream of a world where mobile music devices see added value in developer communities. I know it’s crazy. It just built the platforms for Windows, Mac, Palm, Blackberry, Java, etc., etc. But maybe someone will come around to my entirely insane, unprecedented, and illogical way of thinking.