The butterfly is back
In the show's kickoff keynote speech, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates devoted much time to the launch of a new version of the company's popular MSN Internet service. The update includes an overhaul of MSN.com, and new features--all geared toward broadband users. The big news, however, was the release of a bring-your-own-broadband Premium package of content and software for those who already have cable or DSL. The most obvious change in MSN is its integration of loads of Windows Media Video content, including clips from the likes of NBC News and NBC Entertainment, Showtime, the Weather Channel, and many others.
But the biggest crowd pleasers were the new personalization options and vastly improved handling of digital photos. The customizable My MSN home page now lets you drag and drop more than 150 different content modules around the page, including a new eBay module that lets you keep an eye on bids--the first time that eBay has allowed this level of integration
with its service, according to Microsoft.
The Premium service includes the new features of MSN.com, plus a slew of additional communication, productivity, and security software. One new feature, for example, makes it easy to e-mail photo albums, downsizing images and inserting them in e-mail with links to the original high-res versions stored on a server--all with a few clicks. Also impressive is the new Outlook Connector that lets you use Outlook's rich PIM features with Hotmail. MSN Premium costs $9.95 per month or $99.95 per year (though partners such as Qwest and Verizon will offer it free), and it competes with other bring-your-own-broadband services, such as AOL for Broadband.
In related news, Microsoft announced Extender products that push the Media Center PC interface and capabilities onto any TV or Xbox. The company is also developing software called Windows Media Connect, which will make it easier for digital audio receivers to access all of the audio and video content on a home PC. Better late than never
One thing Microsoft did not announce at the show was a music download service, but as rumored, both RealNetworks and Sony did. They join an already crowded field, including Apple iTunes, BuyMusic, Musicmatch Downloads, Napster, and others.
Real Music Store lets you download from a catalog of 300,000 songs, which are encoded in AAC format, for 99 cents a track. The download service is integrated in the company's new RealPlayer 10.0, which can also play many digital audio and video formats, including secure music downloads from iTunes, a feature that is sure to be controversial. You can transfer Real Music Store tracks to Palm Zire 71 and Tungsten handhelds, with support for the Treo 600 to come within weeks.
Sony's service, called Connect, draws on a larger catalog of 500,000 tracks, also priced at 99 cents per song (or $9.95 per album). The service, which won't launch until the spring, uses Sony's own ATRAC3 format. You can transfer downloaded songs to Net MD and Hi-MD Walkman recorders, ATRAC CD Walkman players, and Network Walkman players.