Microsoft making better music?

Software giant is pushing a coordinated approach to take on the iPod. Video: Windows Media Player 11 reviewed

When it comes to music, mighty Microsoft is the underdog.

For the company that dominates PC operating systems, desktop software suites and e-mail software and has a darn good business in everything from databases to video games, it's an unaccustomed label.

Can the latest version of Microsoft's music software, Windows Media Player 11, be the first in many steps to dropping that underdog tag? While there's little question that Apple Computer is the company to beat in digital music, technology critics and analysts say Microsoft is starting to get its act together.

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Video: Windows Media Player 11 reviewed
CNET's Molly Wood shows off the newest version of Microsoft's digital jukebox.

Last week, a test version of WMP 11, the company's latest digital jukebox software, was compared favorably by critics to Apple's iTunes. Technology critic Paul Thurrott, for example, gushed in a review on his Web site that despite being an avid iTunes user, he found himself "drawn to Windows Media Player 11" because it "offers dramatically better performance" than iTunes.

So what's to like? Industry insiders cheered the close partnerships Microsoft formed with MTV Networks and iRiver. Redmond helped design Urge, MTV's new subscription music service, and plans to include it in WMP 11. In addition, Microsoft made sure WMP 11 worked seamlessly inside Clix, iRiver's digital music player--the first to feature WMP 11?which also hit the market last week.

Many critics say it's a big improvement over what Microsoft has done in the past, but there's no question Bill Gates & Co. have a long way to go to catch their decades-old rival in this realm.

Removing the guesswork

Apple has sold more than 50 million iPods and controls 70 percent of the worldwide digital-music market, according to analysts. No doubt, Apple's innovative designs have had a lot to do with it. So has the simplicity of Apple's digital music experience. The iPod and the company's online music store are designed to work together and remove the guesswork for consumers.

The same has not been true, critics argue, for Microsoft and its partners. Because it doesn't control both ends, Microsoft has not been able to deliver the slick, out-of-the-box experience that Apple has offered.

Of course, tech historians may recall that Apple's go-it-alone approach to the PC was one of the reasons Microsoft ultimately gained control of the desktop. People initially scoffed at Microsoft's operating system. But with every new version, it got a little better. Microsoft also partnered with far more PC and software makers and, ultimately, drove Apple into a corner of the market.

But is a stereo the same as a PC? That's the million-dollar question. While PC users are accustomed to a complex experience (some would say they don't know any better) people have for decades listened to music on stereo systems that, even at their most complex, are far easier to use than a PC.

For a company to win the digital-music market, say analysts, it needs to duplicate that stereo system simplicity.

"The products by Apple's rivals only confuse consumers," said Shaw Wu, a financial analyst with American Technology Research. "The public doesn't know their names or which device is better from the next. Apple's approach is pretty simple and straightforward."

That's what Microsoft is trying to deal with in WMP 11. Analysts say striking alliances with a select number of music content providers and hardware makers signals that Microsoft is serious about confronting that complexity obstacle.

"That's the biggest game changer--total collaboration," said Jason Hirschhorn, MTV's chief digital officer.

Out of sync in the past

WMP 11 represents the possibility that Microsoft can deliver a streamlined alternative to Apple.

"Vendors and Microsoft were often out of sync in the past," said Susan Kevorkian, analyst with IDC. "Some devices would only support a la carte song sales and others were subscription compatible only. Now you have a variety of established music services and devices working with Microsoft, and the ecosystem is increasingly straightforward."

Microsoft execs argue that the game has just begun.

"Remember the digital market represents only 5 percent of the total market," said Geoff Harris, product unit manager for Windows Media Player. "That means that 95 percent are still buying in traditional means. At the end of the day, this (segment) is still in its infancy."

Microsoft and partners could draw some of that market by billing itself as a cheaper alternative to Apple, said analysts. Apple declined to comment for this article.

Alissa Paolella, 19, a journalism student at Ohio University, is a big fan of singer Ani DiFranco, but has yet to buy a digital music player. Paolella said she would consider a cheaper alternative to the iPod "because everybody else has one."

There's one problem: She doesn't know the name of a single rival to the iPod and hadn't heard about last week's launch of iRiver's Clix.

Of course, that's what Microsoft is trying to change. WMP 11 supports subscription services and MTV's Urge will offer customers two pricing models: They can choose to pay 99 cents per song or subscribe to a monthly all-you-can-eat download service for $9.95 or $14.95.

MTV and Microsoft are billing these subscription services as the most economical way to discover a lot of new music without going broke.

But until someone other than Apple comes up with an easy-to-use music system, don't expect Apple to lose its grip on the young market.

"If my mom asks me what she should buy, I'm telling her to get an iPod," said Nitin Gupta, an analyst at The Yankee Group. "My brother is more tech savvy, and he might be interested in doing more than what Apple provides. I might tell him to try one of the new MP3 players."

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