As the heavyweights of streaming media technology duke it out for market share, Yahoo is quietly testing software for playing and managing digital media files intended to go head-to-head with the market leaders.
The company's entry into the market for digital player software comes as established competitors use their players to aggressively promote their online content offerings and aggregation. Yahoo Player leads relentlessly back to Yahoo's own listings, downloads, reviews and other online content.
"We are testing some functionality that's in beta form right now, but we haven't made any formal announcements yet," a Yahoo spokesman confirmed.
The creation of Yahoo Player signals an attempt by the portal to keep up with music services available through many of its rivals. America Online, for instance, owns MP3 player Winamp and Net radio player Spinner.
In addition, start-ups such as music-swapping software maker Napster have captured the attention of millions of consumers and have riled the music industry.
The major record labels--Warner Music, BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, Universal Music Group and Sony Music--are making moves to release their songs online after waiting in the wings for many years. But the labels say they are threatened by companies such as Napster, which they allege facilitates the free trade of copyrighted works online.
"Music is becoming a big thing on the Net," said Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Sites like Yahoo are wanting to provide the range of services that their customers are looking for."
Yahoo comes years late to the player software arena; its nascent player launches as RealNetworks celebrates its fifth birthday and eighth player.
But the trial version of Yahoo Player is up-to-date on some hot media player trends. The software, available to the public for download through Yahoo's Broadcast.com site, follows RealNetworks in combining features found in media players with those found in "jukebox" applications for file storage and management.
RealNetworks recently merged its jukebox and player, calling the combined software the Real Entertainment Center.
The launch of a Yahoo-branded media player has been rumored for some time. As previously reported, Yahoo last December was renegotiating its contract with RealNetworks, which could have resulted in a lesser role for the media software company on Yahoo Broadcast's services.
According to one source familiar with the discussions at the time, Yahoo was considering choosing Microsoft Windows Media as its preferred streaming technology provider. Teaming up with Microsoft would let Yahoo Broadcast create its own branded streaming media player powered by Windows Media technology.
Yahoo in March licensed Windows Media technology to the degree that it could play Windows audio files.
It remains unclear, however, to what degree Yahoo is using Microsoft's technology in the actual player.
Michael Aldridge, product manager for Windows Media, said in an interview that he "believes" Yahoo is using Microsoft's software development components to create Yahoo Player.
Yahoo declined to comment on any details surrounding the technology powering its player.
Whatever the underlying software, the resulting product plays Windows' media files, and not RealNetworks'. In that light, the launch of the Yahoo Player appears to be an example of "co-optition" for Microsoft, which faces another challenger in the battle for player market share but gains an ally in the dissemination of its compression technology
Like its competitors, the Yahoo Player offers a significant array of Web page-viewing capabilities directly in the player interface. A key component of the player is its Yahoo Digital Browser. One of three panes in the Yahoo Player interface, along with a playlist and radio bar, the browser calls up a wide variety of Yahoo's audio and video content pages.
Like version 8 of the RealPlayer, unveiled this week, the Yahoo Player supports scrolling pages, forms and buttons, giving it the look and feel of a Web browser.
But--again like RealPlayer 8--Yahoo Player relies on a person's standard Web browser when displaying more complex HTML pages.
Another area in which Yahoo has caught up with Microsoft and RealNetworks is in its support for skins, or customizable cosmetic interfaces that enable people or content providers to design the look of the player. Yahoo Player's skins, which include such fanciful names as "Gizmo," "Swirl" and "Heartrate," can be found on its site.
The Yahoo Player met with mixed reviews from one beta tester, who admired it for the economy of its technical design but said it came up short on features and functionality.
"I like either the new RealJukebox 2/Player 8 or Windows Media Player 7 better," one beta tester said in an email interview. "But this one seems to be less of a drain of system resources."
The beta tester, who has been evaluating versions of the Yahoo Player since late last year and will be rewarded for his labor with a Yahoo T-shirt, said Yahoo's jukebox capabilities were "pretty good" but didn't measure up to the competition.
"It won't help organize the files as well as Real," the tester said.
RealNetworks was first to market with a jukebox. Microsoft followed recently with its own offering.