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Windows Media Player 9 tough to shake

People looking to uninstall the test version of the new media player software may find the program is like a bad houseguest: It just won't leave.

Some people looking to uninstall the latest test version of Microsoft's new Windows Media Player 9 Series software may find the program is like a bad houseguest: It just won't leave.

Microsoft's latest media software doesn't include a mechanism for uninstalling the software on Windows Millennium Edition (Me) or Windows XP operating system. Typically software makers like Microsoft provide a simple means of uninstalling software--particularly software such as Media Player 9 Series that has yet to be officially released.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company released the public beta version last week amid much fanfare in Hollywood.

Windows Me and XP users must rely on a feature called "System Restore" to roll back their Windows installation to a time before they installed Media Player 9 Series if the want to uninstall it. The clunky alternative doesn't really remove all Windows Media Player 9 Series files and could potentially wipe out other system changes.

David Caulton, a Windows Media product manager, said the uninstall issue isn't a bug or mistake: Microsoft intended the software to work that way, and the company warns people before they install the software that it's hard to get rid of it.

"We tried to make this clear on the download page. It's the method we use to get the OS back to the previous state. As with any OS component you might upgrade, everything has to go back sequentially together. If I install Windows Media Player 9 Series beta and Office, and I roll back, that would be to a pre-Office state," said Caulton. "The more users that can be informed that's the method for going back, the better," he said.

Users running Windows 98 SE or Windows 2000 can easily uninstall the media player using the operating systems' "Add or Remove Programs" feature, a typical means of getting rid of unwanted software. This option is not available on Windows Me or XP because of the media player's deep integration into the operating systems, Caulton said.

"Windows 2000 doesn't have the issues with deep media integration into the shell, the way Windows Millennium Edition and Windows XP have," Caulton said.

"This is really an OS upgrade," Caulton said of Windows Media Player 9 Series. "If you imagine a situation with an XP user who has got all these links into media capabilities...and you updated to Windows Media Player 9 Series and removed it, all those become dead links."

Analysts said the uninstall issue will most likely cause problems.

"That will be a real big pain for folks," Gartner analyst Michael Silver said. "With beta software, problems don't just crop up the first day. If a problem crops up in two or three weeks or a month and you have to roll back, that's going to roll back whatever else you installed in the time frame."

Reader Resources
Windows Media Player 9 review
Get the details on Microsoft's
media player public beta.

Some people may find good reason for going back to an early version of the media player: Windows Media Player 9 Series doesn't support older portable music devices that use serial or parallel connections. Under Windows XP, the media player does not support CD burning using Roxio's popular software. These changes are documented in the product's release notes.

Another problem for Windows Me and XP users: If they're unable to use "System Restore" to roll back the system to an earlier state, they may be out of luck entirely.

"Windows Media 9 Series is still in beta, and until the final version is released, technical support is not available for these components," according to Microsoft's Windows Media support Web site. Microsoft refers users to the microsoft.public.windowsmedia.beta newsgroup for assistance.

The situation also shines yet another light on Microsoft's strategy of bundling what had been standalone products into the operating system. Until Windows Media 8, Microsoft offered a separate version of the software for other versions of Windows and some competing operating systems, such as Mac OS. But Microsoft more tightly integrated the media player into Windows XP, offering no separate download for other operating systems.

With Windows Media Player 9 Series, Microsoft appeared to fall back from that position, offering the player also for Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Me and Windows 2000. The company currently has no plans to release a separate version for the Mac OS and other operating systems for which the media player had previously been available.

Several readers contacted CNET to complain about the lack of Media Player 9 Series uninstall option. Brad Spry, a Webmaster from Charlotte, N.C., also criticized Microsoft's bundling strategy.

"Microsoft continues tying new products such as Media Player to the OS," he said. "They are 'commingling' the player so deep into Windows, the two cannot be separated. This is an intentional programming strategy. Technically, software can be programmed to be standalone, making it separate from the OS and uninstallable. However, that would be bad for (Microsoft's) business."

Gartner's Silver also didn't buy Microsoft's integration argument; particularly given the software is still testing and could cause problems on some computers.

"I'm not sure how much it is the excuse of integration vs. one of not wanting to spend the money to develop the uninstall capability," he said.

Service Pack 1 removable
On Monday, Microsoft released Windows XP Service Pack 1, the first collection of updates and bug fixes for the OS launched in October. The update, like the Windows Media Player 9 Series installation, makes changes that go deep into the operating system. But Microsoft provided an "Archive" feature with Service Pack 1 that would allow people to restore Windows XP to its previous state.

With "the service pack you can go back to the original state, why not Media Player?" Gartner's Silver asked.

To that, Windows Media product manager Caulton said, "I'm not sure what the answer to that question is, so I would hate to speculate."

Using the "System Restore" to roll back a system does not necessarily remove files Windows Media Player 9 Series places on the computer during installation--and issue that could potentially cause future problems.

According to Windows XP Help: "System Restore does not replace the process of uninstalling a program. To completely remove the files installed by a program, you must remove the program using Add or Remove Programs in Control Panel or the program's own uninstall program."

Another option would be to use the new middleware control added to Windows XP with Service Pack 1. But that feature would only hide access to the media player, rather than remove it.

"The words 'standalone' and 'uninstall' have themselves been uninstalled from Microsoft's vocabulary," Spry charged. "They have been replaced with the term 'program hiding.' Products that appear to be standalone are actually an OS upgrade."

But Caulton argued third-party software developers have come to depend on the presence of the media player in Windows, particularly XP. "If you completely remove the media components from the operating system, suddenly other apps (that) you expect to continue working suddenly stop working," he said.