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Winamp locks onto Windows title bars

A software plug-in for Winamp puts controls on title bars of applications--including the bar of Microsoft's competing Windows Media Player.

Microsoft may be nearing a courtroom victory in its historic antitrust battle, but it faces new challenges from rivals intent on stripping away its control of the PC desktop.

Programmers on Friday released a software addition for AOL Time Warner's Winamp media player that adds controls to the title bar of Windows applications, a move that apparently ignores Microsoft's interface guidelines for third-party software developers.

Yahoo also recently unveiled a package of services, called Yahoo Essentials, that embeds its instant messaging client within Internet Explorer and makes Yahoo the default search engine within the browser address bar.

Both moves reflect an ongoing effort by Microsoft competitors to customize interfaces on the desktop in hopes of counteracting the software giant's monopoly advantages--a step that may become an even higher priority now that the government has all but settled its antitrust suit against the company.

"Eyeballs on the desktop and the Web are polarizing, and everyone wants to get in front of consumers," said Chris Letocq, an industry strategist for SageCircle who follows information technology.

Test versions of the Winamp plug-in add displays and buttons to reserved areas on desktop applications in Windows XP, Windows 2000 and other recent versions of the operating system. The control allows people to pause, play and scroll through music playlists. It also automatically appears on whatever window happens to display an active application, whether it's a browser, an e-mail program or even Microsoft's competing Windows Media Player.

Normally, Microsoft strictly limits the use of the title bar in the interests of creating a standard look and feel for all applications that run on its Windows OS. The space generally carries buttons in the upper right-hand corner to resize, close or collapse an application window, as well as some limited information about an application or file in the upper left-hand corner.

Brennan Underwood, principle software engineer at AOL Time Warner's Nullsoft division, said the company had no part in creating the plug-in.

"We (Nullsoft) didn't write this plug-in," Underwood wrote in an email. "It's a third-party plug-in we were previously only barely aware of."

Microsoft could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Winamp plug-in could signal an extension of the customization battle from the browser to media players, where Microsoft has progressively introduced plans to tie its products more closely to the operating system. Those moves have set off concerns that the company may use its OS monopoly to take over the digital media market, repeating a formula that helped it displace Netscape Communications in the browser wars.

Microsoft has been facing off primarily against RealNetworks and its RealOne Player. But Winamp, with about 100 million downloads and the backing of parent AOL Time Warner, cannot be discounted.

While Nullsoft said it has no part in the plug-in, it has sought greater control over consumers on the desktop in the past: Winamp and other media players have long prompted people to set a default application that will launch with attempts to play certain file types, such as MP3s. As a result, people who use multiple players may find themselves repeatedly pestered to switch between products.

Such tug-of-wars are irksome and could lead many customers to forgo customization in the interests of maintaining a simple and unified experience.

"A number of companies tried this with Windows several years ago, but those efforts died of natural causes," said Letocq, who added that consumers have shied from such products in the past. "Whether or not people gravitate toward this will depend on how useful they find the feature. That will be Winamp's challenge."