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XP and Vista to get new media player

Microsoft's Windows Media Player 11 is coming to Vista and to XP sooner. Is iPod connection ahead?

Microsoft plans to jazz up its music player in Windows Vista, the company's next operating system. But at least some of the new features will debut much sooner.

The software, which will be built into Vista, is designed to offer better synching with portable devices, make it easier to scroll through long libraries of music, and be tightly integrated with Urge, a new subscription and download music service co-developed by Microsoft and MTV Networks.

But while most people won't be able to get their hands on Vista until next year, consumers will be able to get some of the media enhancements sooner. Microsoft is on track to release a Windows XP version of Windows Media Player 11 before the end of June, the company confirmed last week.

Microsoft has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the XP incarnation. The company briefly demonstrated it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January but has said little since. Microsoft has said the XP version won't have all the features of its Vista sibling, but the company won't say which features will be excluded. The company also has yet to offer a public test version of the software.

The Vista version, which has been in public testing for months, offers significant changes from the current version of the media-playing software, particularly when connecting to portable devices.

With the new media player, consumers will be able to "reverse sync," meaning they can send content from a digital device to a PC. That will allow users to transfer pictures taken with their camera phone, or music purchased on a wireless device.

Other sync options include synching a player to multiple PCs and filling a device with random tracks--a la Shuffle in iTunes--according to a Windows Vista product guide that was briefly made available on the Internet last week.

Another change is the ability to alter protected music and video files to change their quality level. With the new software, protected Windows Media files can be converted to smaller file sizes for playback on mobile devices, where there is less need for very-high-quality video files.

Windows Media Player 11

Of course, the player that most people want to connect with is Apple Computer's iPod. And no, Windows Media Player 11 won't allow conversion of purchased Windows Media Songs into iTunes' proprietary FairPlay format. So songs bought from a Windows Media store still won't play on the iPod.

"When people are taking their songs off their computer, it's usually to an iPod," said Yankee Group analyst Nitin Gupta.

It is unclear whether Microsoft plans to build any special options to connect to the world's most popular digital music player. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft allows users to play music from the player, even though it can't process songs purchased from iTunes.

"That's certainly something they could implement," Gupta said. "The real issue is the purchased music portion. That's not going to change anytime soon."

Media Player 11 also sports an updated look. Libraries can be viewed not just as an endless list of song tracks, but also using album art in stacks, an effect that looks a bit like a group of old record covers stacked one on top of another. Indexed searching allows users to quickly find whatever they're looking for just by typing a few letters, again borrowing a popular trick from iTunes.

Microsoft also tries to do a better job of showing what rights a user has to a particular song. With iTunes, customers own their music, and all of the tracks can be burned to a CD or transferred to an iPod. But Windows Media supports a number of different options.

Some tracks can be played on a PC but not burned to a CD or added to a portable player. Others can be put on a player but not burned, while still other tracks can be used in all three ways.

"Windows Media Player 11 includes features that make it easier to understand these rights and troubleshoot any problems that may arise," Microsoft said in the Vista product guide.

It's still unclear which of these new features will be part of the XP incarnation of WMP 11. One thing that will definitely be included, Microsoft says, is the integrated Urge music service. Microsoft is hoping the new subscription service will help the company

Urge is important, Gupta said, because Microsoft needs a really compelling service before Windows Media-based digital players can really compete with the iPod. One of the challenges, though, is that the business of selling music online tends not to be that profitable.

"Online music is a low-margin business," Gupta said. "Apple can make it work for them because they have another source of revenue" (the iPod).

But with MTV, Microsoft may have found a partner that is willing to invest in a top-notch service, even if it can't make tons of money selling songs or music subscriptions.

"MTV has other ways to leverage their online service," Gupta said. "They don't need it to be a profit center."

Plus, MTV can flog the service on its huge collection of TV stations.

"If the Urge service does gain popularity and it does drive a lot of usage, that may lead to a more open market for digital music players and more competition for the iPod," Gupta said.