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Microsoft roots for the home team--Windows

The software giant offers a steep discount on live Webcasts of Major League Baseball games--but only to Windows users. Mac users have to pay full price, and Linux fans are out of luck.

Savvy baseball fans have found a way to watch hundreds of games live on the Web for the price of a single stadium ticket. But only if their PCs run Windows.

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What's new:
Microsoft is offering a steep discount on live Webcasts of Major League Baseball games--but only to Windows users.

Bottom line:
To some longtime Microsoft watchers, this Windows-only bargain is the latest example of the software giant tying products and content, in this case one of America's favorite pastimes, to its operating system--often at the expense of non-Windows PC users and competitors.

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Microsoft, which just signed an estimated $40 million deal with Major League Baseball for Webcasting rights, is offering the bargain to subscribers of MSN Premium, a subscription-based product that doesn't work with the Mac or Linux operating systems.

Here's the deal: Sign up for MSN Premium and you get the first three months free, including access to all video- and audio-casts from MLB.com, according to MSN's Web site. After that, you pay $9.95 a month. For the full six-month baseball season, which runs from April to September, that comes to only about $30. (A CNET News.com reporter signed up for the promotion Wednesday and watched a Dodgers-Padres game on video.)

By contrast, Mac users--equipped with their high-resolution "cinema" displays--get stuck paying MLB.com's regular rate of about $100--three times as much. MLB.com's All Access offering, which includes live video and audio, goes for $19.95 a month, or $99.95 a season. MLB.com shuts out Linux customers altogether, at least for now.

Microsoft plans to launch a Mac version of MSN Premium in the future that will include MLB.com video- and audio-casts, a representative said, adding that the company has released MSN versions in the past for the Mac, but not for Linux. "MSN Premium isn't available to Mac customers yet, and there isn't an ETA for that," the representative said. "It's something we're thinking about for the future."


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To some longtime Microsoft watchers, this Windows-only bargain is the latest example of the software giant tying products and content, in this case one of America's favorite pastimes, to its operating system--often at the expense of non-Windows PC users and competitors.

According to Microsoft, the practice is popular with its customers. But critics have argued that this so-called integrated innovation shows how Microsoft leverages its operating-system dominance to drive sales in other businesses--in this case MSN--and maintain its grip on the desktop.

In the late 1990s, Microsoft drew criticism for exclusive content deals intended to promote its Internet Explorer browser at the height of the browser wars with Netscape. Yusuf Mehdi, the Microsoft executive who id="204956">helped launch those plans, is now running MSN.

"Their modus operandi has been to use the Windows operating system to exclude competitors," contended Kevin O'Connell, an antitrust attorney with the Los Angeles firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips.

Analysts said Microsoft has legitimate business reasons for favoring Windows over rivals such as Apple Computer's Mac OS X when developing new products like MSN Premium. One is market share. Apple accounts for less than 5 percent of PC sales, making it less of a priority. Another factor is that Microsoft's Mac and Windows software teams work independently and are not required to "sync" their release schedules.

Microsoft has done a credible job of offering timely Mac products, according to some analysts. The company has recently begun introducing some features in its Mac applications before they appear in the PC versions, said Tim Bajarin, president of consulting group Creative Strategies.

"There's no question this is a cause of great frustration for Mac users, but it would be wrong to make a blanket statement that...(software applications) first show up on a PC," he said. "A legitimate question is why don't they simultaneously develop for the Mac and PC? The biggest reason is because the Mac group is a separate group."

In the past, Microsoft's bundling practices typically have involved including features such as browser and media player software in Windows--a plan that has ensured ubiquitous distribution because the operating system runs on more than 90 percent of the world's PCs.

With baseball, Microsoft is using the lure of premium content to sell MSN--and Windows.

Such efforts come with a high price tag. Microsoft last month agreed to pay MLB.com an estimated $40 million during a two-year period for Webcasting rights.

RealNetworks previously held the contract with MLB.com, paying $20 million for three years. It dropped out of the most recent round of bidding. Real, which ended its deal this spring, said it had trouble making money from the programming.

Microsoft has poured an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars into MSN in the past, building it into the world's second largest dial-up Internet service provider, with about 9 million subscribers as of late last year. But it has only recently turned its first profit.

Microsoft now hopes to refocus MSN as a broadband offering and a showcase for its Windows Media audio and video streaming technologies. Later this summer, MSN is expected to launch an online music store to compete with Apple's iTunes Music Store and America Online's MusicNet.

When it comes to baseball, however, MSN faces stiff competition. Its deal with Major League Baseball allows MLB.com to sell the same products and strike distribution deals with other partners, including AOL. The world's largest Internet service provider is offering live baseball audio Webcasts as part of its $14.95 a month premium package. MLB.com has also signed distribution deals with at least three cable broadband providers.