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Peter Gabriel's Windows Media 9 gig

The musician's new album, "Up," debuts on the Web in Windows Media 9 Series format. In what Microsoft claims is a Web first, the album comes in 5.1-channel surround-sound audio.

Microsoft on Tuesday scored its first big promotional boost for the new Windows Media Player 9 Series software.

Peter Gabriel's new album, "Up," debuted Tuesday in stores--and on the Web in Windows Media 9 Series format. In what Microsoft claims is a Web first, the album comes in 5.1-channel surround-sound audio. Consumers can preview the entire album, before deciding whether to purchase "Up." The price was not immediately available.

The surround-sound download is a hefty 188MB. A 62MB version of the file in ?stereo? format is also available.

The release of Gabriel's latest album in Windows Media Audio 9 format is the first showcase of some of the new media player's advanced features. Following the download, Windows Media Player 9 launches and begins playing the album, displaying the lyrics in the main Window. A bar of solid-colored blocks on the left-hand side of the main window leads to additional material, such as discography or biography, or Web sites, such as PeterGabriel.com.

"The availability of "Up" in Windows Media format is significant as it showcases one of Microsoft's key features in promoting WM, namely 5.1 surround sound," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "The appeal is somewhat limited in a practical sense to Peter Gabriel enthusiasts (who have) faster Internet connections and 5.1 surround-sound systems connected to their PCs."

Microsoft is offering the free preview until Oct. 1. The license for listening to "Up" expires Oct. 8. After that time, the album will not play unless a person pays for it.

Once purchased, the album can be copied to digital music players supporting WMA format or to a CD.

Microsoft released a public beta of Windows Media Player 9 Series earlier this month at a Hollywood gala hosted by Chairman Bill Gates.

Among its enhancements, the new player sports advanced privacy and security features, the latter emphasizing the purchase of digital content. Right now, Microsoft is ahead of competitors such as Apple Computer and RealNetworks in delivering digital rights management (DRM) technology as part of the media player.

DRM is essential for Microsoft's larger goal of making Windows Media Player 9 Series a vehicle for delivering secure digital content to the desktop that is not easy to pirate or trade. To this end, Microsoft has added a "Services" tab to the new media player that offers subscription services from PressPlay and CinemaNow, among others.

CinemaNow, for example, offers pay-for-view movies available in Windows Media 9 Series formats that can be downloaded and watched in Microsoft's player. Typically, the licenses expire after 24 hours. While many consumers may think of CinemaNow's stable of downloads as bad "B" movies, the site also offers popular titles like "Harry Potter."

The release of "Up" may prove the biggest test of Microsoft's DRM technology to date. Trading digital music files is a longstanding Internet practice, despite efforts by the record labels to quash swapping sites such as Napster.

How the DRM is implemented is up to the publisher, a Microsoft representative said on Tuesday. In the case of the new Peter Gabriel album, people would be able to convert the downloaded version to the standard Redbook CD format. Once recorded on CD, file traders could conceivably rip the songs to MP3 format and post them on the Web for redistribution. Other publishers might choose to implement the DRM in more restrictive way. Those people choosing to convert to standard format would see some degradation of audio quality, since the process does not support 5.1 surround sound.

"The fact that you can try before you buy is nice, and it emphasizes Microsoft's commitment to working on DRM solutions that work for both content creators and end users," Gartenberg said. "Whether users will adapt to this model or just wait for the tracks to appear on Kazaa remains to be seen."