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MTV gets first crack at Windows' new music

New "Urge" music service is first to tap Microsoft's new multimedia features. But how much is that worth? Photos: Scenes from CES

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
With a patient look on his face, Bill Gates welcomed pop star Justin Timberlake to the stage Wednesday night during the his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The singer was there, along with MTV Networks head Van Toffler, to tout the Urge music subscription service, soon to be released by MTV. Unlike any rival service, Urge is built directly into Microsoft's upcoming version of the Windows Media Player.


"When I release my new album this year...Urge and I will be doing some new and creative things," Timberlake said, joking that the Microsoft chairman would be joining him in a duet. "Urge offers a new way for artists like myself to specifically reach music fans with a ton of options."

As a buzz builder for a new music service, this was about par. After all, rival Apple Computer has tapped artists from U2 to Wynton Marsalis for its events.

But the flashy unveiling also provided a glimpse of what Microsoft hopes will be the core of a new generation of music services and a revised way to interact with PC-based music--one that extends well beyond MTV and Timberlake.

Windows Media Player 11, set for a March release, with Urge built in, will be a substantial change in the way the Microsoft multimedia player browses and displays music. Rather than a long list of album or artist names scrolling down the left side of the player, a bigger window will show "stacks" of album art, like old record covers piled on top of one another, as a visual cue to show how much content is available.

For services like MTV's Urge, the player will also download metadata (song titles, album names and so on) for the service's entire catalog of nearly 2 million songs and store it locally on a subscribers' computer, the companies said. That means browsing the huge subscription catalog will theoretically be as fast as looking through everyday files on a hard drive.

A favored partner?
Microsoft's decision to tap MTV as its launch partner for the new Windows Media Player has irked some in the digital-music industry, though others will likely have the ability to place their offerings alongside Urge in the player.

Microsoft has long walked a thin diplomatic line in the music business, offering slots inside the Windows Media Player to a few partners while also giving its own music offerings prime placement.

The situation is even more delicate since a recent antitrust settlement with RealNetworks, in which Microsoft agreed to give Real's Rhapsody music service promotional space at least as prominent as that given any other music service, including its own.

But RealNetworks Senior Vice President Dan Sheeran said MTV's apparent leading roll inside the new Windows music software won't violate the agreement. Rhapsody is being promoted around the MSN network, and links will be built into Microsoft's Messenger and search tools, he said.

"Certainly, we'll take a look at (the new Media Player)," Sheeran said, noting that Rhapsody's approach was to bring people to the Web rather than keep them inside Microsoft's software. "If there's a way to make that architecturally integrated with our approach, we're open to it."

Despite stiff competition from Apple Computer's iTunes player, which has dominated the song download market with its one-click access to the iTunes music store, Microsoft's jukebox software has managed to maintain its dominant player position among PC customers. According to The NPD Group, the Media Player accounts for 45 percent of all PC music playing, while Apple's iTunes captures 17 percent.

But it's not clear just how helpful that's been to the music services built into the player in the past.

An executive at Napster, a music subscription service that served as Microsoft's launch partner for two previous generations of Windows Media Player, said having the service built into the player hadn't led to runaway success.

"Our experience has been that it is certainly a good thing to do for a service like ours," Napster Chief Technology Officer Bill Pence said. "That said, it has by no means provided the majority of our users. Nine out of 10 prefer the standalone Napster client because it really is optimized for music."