The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker started issuing letters late Monday demanding Web sites pull down a supposed beta, or trial version, of the software.
"We first contacted all the Web sites that have the bits up there right now with (warnings) of legal action to remove it immediately," said Dave Fester, Microsoft's general manager for digital media. "We started doing that last night. I'm sure they will be more than eager to comply."
But CNET News.com easily found, downloaded and tested a copy of the streaming and multimedia player program Tuesday afternoon. Many of the Web sites apparently are operating overseas and out of Microsoft's immediate reach.
Distribution of the program raises further controversy and confusion over Windows Media Player 8, which Microsoft said it would integrate with the forthcoming Windows XP operating system rather than offer as a separate downloadable program. A separately available beta of the media player would seem to contradict Microsoft's position.
Jonathan Usher, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows Media Player, said the rogue program is lifted from the latest beta release of Windows XP and repackaged as a standalone version.
"An unauthorized person basically took files from Windows XP Beta 2 and created their sort of rough-and-ready install program around the files, which they called Windows Media Player 8," he said.
Usher said the "origin of the files is unknown," and he warned that installing the program "could put customer PCs at risk. "
CNET News.com tested the program, which is about 30MB in size uncompressed, and found it installed easily on notebooks running Windows Me and Windows 2000. But while the program claims to be Windows Media Player 8, build 4228, the user interface and functions appear nearly identical to the current version 7. The most recent version available with Windows XP is 8, build 4348.
While the program indicates support for some features available with the version of Windows Media Player 8 found in Windows XP Beta 2, they are in fact missing. The options menu for setting the program's functions offers access to DVD playback and CD burning, neither of which work.
Those features require access to Windows XP, which is one reason Microsoft chose to integrate Windows Media Player 8 with the operating system, Usher said. Other missing features include enhanced video playback, integration with the Windows interface and improved media file management features, he said.
At first glance, one possible origin for the rogue program is an update CD provided to some Windows XP testers to install the new version of Media Player. But that CD will only install on the new operating system and not earlier versions. The rogue program is clearly designed for other Windows versions.
Frank Gillett, senior analyst at Forrester Research, initially said it was possible the program is a test version for a standalone version of Windows Media Player 8 that leaked out. But after reviewing the non-functional new features, such as DVD and CD-burning, he concluded that was unlikely.
Fester said there is no standalone Windows Media Player 8 circulating within Microsoft.
"If we had the capability of building a standalone player and offer unique functionality for an existing version of Windows, we might consider doing it," he said. "Fact of the matter of it is, Microsoft is in the business of building operating systems that offer new functionality year after year."
But Gillett didn't buy Microsoft's contention that someone hacked the code from Windows XP, which he described as "a pretty sophisticated job not just anybody could do."
Making a statement
But if that is the case, Gillett believes the program's creation is a jab at Microsoft's decision to integrate Windows Media Player 8 into Windows XP rather than offer a separate product.
"They're saying that Microsoft could have made it available for older operating systems but chose not to do it," he said. "This clearly makes the point and gets people annoyed. They install it, but all the features don't work."
Microsoft's decision not to offer Windows Media Player 8 with Windows XP is highly controversial. Microsoft is awaiting a decision in its antitrust appeal that could determine how many features it will be able to integrate into future versions of Windows.
"This bundling is very similar to what they did with the Internet Explorer browser and Windows 95 (and) 98," said Emmett Stanton, an antitrust attorney with Fenwick & West in Palo Alto, Calif.
Microsoft will continue to update the video and audio playback quality of existing standalone versions of Windows Media Player, but full features require a Windows XP upgrade.
"We're not going to offer another version of the Media Player that strips out all that functionality that's exposed to your PC in Windows XP," Fester said. "In Windows XP, the underlying core of the operating system offers these new levels of functionality. It's hard to rip that out and try to build a player for other versions of Windows that would be competitive."
One thing is certain: Because of the questionable origins of the standalone Windows Media Player 8, the faint of heart shouldn't install it, said Guernsey Research analyst Chris LeTocq.
"Do not touch it with a long pole," he said. "If it's lifted up with a rogue installer, you don't want to be putting it on your system."