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Microsoft's Media Player goes for mainstream audience

The company releases a technology preview of the latest version of its Windows Media Player with an overture toward the average consumer electronics user.

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Microsoft today released a preview version of its newest Windows Media Player in its latest push to unseat RealNetworks as the dominant provider of online multimedia technology.

The new Windows Media Player 7 brings Microsoft a step closer to catching RealNetworks' Jukebox product, which organizes, stores and plays digital media on personal computers. Although Microsoft has licensed its software to MusicMatch, which competes with RealNetworks in this category, it has never offered its own jukebox feature.

With its release, Microsoft is following an industry trend toward all-in-one players that can handle the full range of digital media formats in the same interface, from video and audio "streams" to CDs and downloaded content. In November, MusicMatch released an integrated player supporting Microsoft's technology, putting pressure on RealNetworks to do the same with its RealPlayer product. RealNetworks has yet to release an all-in-one player.

The release may indicate that Microsoft is slowly chipping away at RealNetworks' market dominance.

"Microsoft has definitely established itself as a viable competitor," said Seamus McAteer, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "This is a market it doesn't want to cede, and it has pulled all the stops to make sure it has a commanding share in a duopoly market."

The preview release comes shortly after RealNetworks licensed Microsoft's audio technology, signaling a new phase in a strained relationship that over the past few years has seen investments and technology partnerships end in acrimony, Senate testimony and divestments.

The software maker has portrayed its licensing deal with RealNetworks as a sign that Windows Media will become the digital audio standard--despite the fact that RealNetworks offers the leading audio streaming format and MP3 is by far the dominant audio format for downloads. RealNetworks has said it will support Microsoft's format on its Jukebox to create a PC music player that can accommodate all of the major formats for audio downloads.

Microsoft's new player will support some but not all audio and video formats. It will play MP3 files, for example, but it will not recognize RealNetworks' formats.

The company said its new player will help Windows Media gain further support among consumers.

"The idea of all-in-one media playback makes a dramatic difference in how accessible this technology is to the average user," Kevin Unangst, lead product manager for the streaming media division at Microsoft, said in an interview.

A boost in popularity among average consumers, as opposed to college students and other tech-savvy groups, could help fuel Microsoft's long campaign to catch the market leader. The software maker has been steadily progressing toward that end, according to usage surveys.

By combining the jukebox function with the Windows Media Player and integrating both with its leading Windows operating system, Microsoft may once again be poised to show how its control of the PC desktop provides unparalleled access to new markets.

The new player, like RealNetworks' Jukebox, provides storage, recording and management capabilities for digital media content, including the ability to copy and organize CD content on the PC.

Version 7 also advances Microsoft's ragged march on the market for "palmtop" computing devices and on the consumer electronics front, where its Windows CE operating system has failed to catch fire against competitors such as Palm. With the new player, people will be able to access portable device and storage media including compact Flash readers.

Cosmetic differences in the latest Media Player are more than skin-deep. Version 7 comes in a newly designed basic interface but also offers the opportunity to choose among and even create a variety of designs, or "skins." This may help the player become popular among content developers and artists interested in keeping their brands or images in front of consumers.

Among the new player's bells and whistles is support for music "visualizations," or graphics files that respond spontaneously to music, changing colors and patterns along with the beat and fluctuations in volume.

Advances in audio and visual controls include an integrated 10-band audio equalizer and video controls for adjusting brightness, hue, contrast and saturation.

Through pullout menus on the player, people can download ratings, reviews, discographies and other information provided by Alliance Entertainment's "All Music Guide."

Microsoft is releasing the free player in a technology preview for Windows 98 and Windows 2000. The company said it will release a final version later in the year.

News.com's Jim Hu contributed to this report.

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