Microsoft's media player beat goes on

The software maker is setting itself up as a one-man band for subscriptions and services based on its Windows Media technology as part of a highly anticipated upgrade due next month.

6 min read
Microsoft is setting itself up as a one-man band for subscriptions and services based on its Windows Media technology as part of a highly anticipated upgrade due next month, according to people familiar with the product.

The Windows Media Player 9, which goes into public beta, or test, on Sept. 4, adds a new "Services" tab that initially allows consumers to sign up for a trial subscription to Pressplay, an online music service backed by Sony and Vivendi Universal. The move is part of Microsoft's increased emphasis on Web services and also an attempt to compete against similar offerings from rivals AOL Time Warner and RealNetworks, which are partners in a competing music service known as MusicNet.

"The notion of tying services in with Microsoft technologies is not a new thing," said Jupiter analyst Michael Gartenberg. "We first saw that in things like the 'My Pictures' folder in Windows XP that offered to send you to partner sites for photo reprints and the like."

The linking emphasizes the status of Windows as "valuable real estate that Microsoft controls and can use to leverage relationships," Gartenberg said.

Microsoft might have much more than just Pressplay in mind. "This is the Premium Services area of Windows Media Player, the place to get the best digital media delivered directly to you," the text of the Services tab reads. "These subscription services link directly to your media player, so signing up once means instant sign-in whenever you launch it."

The Redmond, Wash.-based software titan has invested heavily in content in the past with its MSN Internet service and Web site, and through high-profile ventures such as MSNBC and Slate.com. But more recently it has backed away from content creation, preferring to provide technology for media partners rather than to compete with them.

The new promotional plan appears to be consistent with that approach, offering a platform primarily for partners to sell their products. But it is also something of an admission that RealNetworks and AOL Time Warner have done a better job than have Microsoft's customers at building feasible subscription services for Internet content.

RealNetworks, for example, has attracted some 700,000 paid subscribers to its RealOne service, making it the biggest generator of revenue from content on the Net, according to one recent study.

Last month, Microsoft designated its next-generation media technology--code-named Corona--as the Windows Media 9 Series. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will officially unveil the technology and the first public beta in Los Angeles during a Hollywood-style gala early in September.

Microsoft would not comment on the features ahead of the official beta launch. When available, Windows Media Player 9 is set to work with Windows XP and other versions of the operating system. Version 8 was available only with Windows XP.

From playlists to privacy
Judging by the most recent test version of the software, which CNET News.com observed in action on Tuesday, Windows Media Player 9 is chock full of new features, some of them like those on competing products.

For example, the beta adds Auto Playlists, which are similar to the SmartPlaylist feature part of Apple Computer's iTunes 3, released last month. Both use rules to quickly organize digital music files. The new Windows Media comes with 14 preconfigured Auto Playlists, such as "Late night music," compared with iTunes' four preset lists. Both programs also can organize playlists based on rating. By default, Windows Media Player assigns all songs three stars, on a scale of one to five.

Microsoft's media player also adds "cross-fading" between songs, similar to the transitions heard on the radio, and the user has control over the duration of the overlap between two songs. Apple introduced a similar feature with iTunes 2. Windows Media Player 9 also can adjust the sound level among songs, a longstanding feature of MusicMatch's product and new to iTunes.

When the user minimizes the program to the Windows Task Bar, a mini-player control appears on the task bar for listening to digital media, adjusting sound or accessing other commonly used features. Windows Media Player 9 comes with about 20 "skins" for changing the look of the player, and more are available if Microsoft's Windows XP Plus pack is installed on the system.

Like its predecessor, Windows Media Player 9 offers only limited support for MP3 files, unless the user pays for an add-in product. The media program will play MP3s but won't rip files in the format without extra-cost, third-party components. But Microsoft has beefed up support for Windows Media Audio (WMA) files. Computer users can rip songs in standard WMA format, WMA variable rate and WMA Professional.

The Video Acceleration Settings control adds a new option for video smoothing. The new player now plays video CDs. Microsoft also has beefed up DVD audio, with settings supporting Home Theater speaker systems using Dolby Audio. But like its predecessor, the new player requires a third-party DVD decoder for viewing of DVD movies. Microsoft has no plans to provide one, the company said last month.

The Media Library control serves up a host of new options, such as downloading song or video file metadata or automatically adding purchased music to the Media Library. The new media player also offers a refined plug-in model; visualizations, cross-fading and volume leveling are treated as plug-ins.

There are also changes involving security and privacy, areas of increased Microsoft interest since the company put in full motion its Trustworthy Computing initiative earlier this year. The Security Zone Settings tab links to the same feature governing defaults for Internet Explorer, Outlook and Outlook Express. Users can choose whether to run scripts.

Privacy and media players are an increasingly hot item. The European Union, for example, is looking into regulating media players with respect to privacy. With Windows Media Player 9, users now can control whether Internet sites can identify the player; the control is set to "block" in the recent beta. Users also can decide whether the program tracks CD and DVD song history, which is sometimes used by external services for identifying tracks. The default setting in the most recent beta is to track this information.

An uncertain market
Microsoft's move to its next-generation media player comes at a time when competitors and potential customers are uncertain about the future of media playback.

In July, for example, RealNetworks once again repositioned its media strategy, this time making key technologies available to the open-source community. Earlier, Real had taken on providing end-to-end streaming subscription services for major content providers, such as CNN Online or Major League Baseball, directly to consumers.

Apple also is playing the open-standards card with QuickTime 6, which supports the emerging MPEG-4 standard for delivering digital broadcast transmissions over cable, satellite and the Web, and a possible successor to MP3, the hugely popular audio format for compressing music digitally.

So far, Microsoft has resisted MPEG-4, which is evident in the most recent Windows Media Player 9. The beta does not play standard MPEG-4 video files. Microsoft instead is pushing new video and audio codecs, formulas that, like MPEG-4, deliver better quality streaming using smaller file sizes. The move, say analysts, is part of Microsoft's strategy to woo content creators, consumers and businesses to use Microsoft's file formats and in so doing sell more copies of Windows XP Embedded, Windows 2000 and the forthcoming Windows .Net Server.

In part of its push against MPEG-4, Microsoft touts Windows Media 9 Series' always-on feature. MPEG-4 offers instant-on, with no buffering required, for video files encoded for the feature.

Apple and Real increasingly are looking to win more support for their file formats on embedded devices, such as Palm handhelds or cell phones. But Gartenberg said the battle of media formats would be won or lost on the PC, not other devices. There, Microsoft's Windows monopoly could be decisive.

"PCs as a platform remain the biggest market for streaming, not non-PC devices," he said. "Therefore, Microsoft will face battle with Real and Apple on the PC, and of course, it still has the home court advantage."