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Microsoft Corp's Zune Originals designs require cooperated work of many artists

Microsoft will engrave designs by contemporary artists onto the back of new Zunes free of charge, when its new line of digital media players goes on sale.

Microsoft Corp.'s Zune Originals designs include work from 18 artists, including illustrators Catalina Estrada of Barcelona, France's Skwak and Nobumasa Takahashi of Japan. The intricate Zune designs take up most of the metallic back surface of the music players.

Apple Inc., the overwhelming market leader in portable music players, will engrave a line or two of small text on the back of its iPods and iPhones.

"We looked at how homogenized the category looked, everybody has the same sort of player, the same white earphones," said Chris Stephenson, general manager of global marketing for the Microsoft division responsible for the Zune. "We knew there was something interesting here that would allow us to have a slightly different position in the marketplace."

Microsoft's newest Zunes, first unveiled in October, hit store shelves Tuesday. The company added a smaller-sized device with 4 gigabytes or 8 gigabytes of storage, and a larger model with an 80 GB hard drive. Prices range from $150 (103 EUR) to $250 (171 EUR).

Many of the artists have collaborated with sneaker companies or snowboard manufacturers on limited-edition products. Stephenson said Microsoft also took a cue from the customization craze on social networking sites like News Corp.-owned MySpace, and from limited-edition cell phones.

Zune employees came up with a "short list" of more than 60 artists. When Microsoft asked if they'd be interested in creating a design, most were on board - thanks, in part, to "the marketing infrastructure that we have, and the ability for them to get their name out there with significance," Stephenson said.

The software maker will also offer 20 tattoo-style designs, and allow customers who choose no design to engrave up to five lines of text.

Stephenson would not say whether Microsoft has any specific goals for the Zune's second year on the market, other than to be "a solid No. 2" to the iPod.

Microsoft said the engraving service is free for a limited time, and is only available through its Zune site.