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Yahoo tests media player amid heavy competition

As the streaming media heavyweights duke it out, the Web portal quietly tests software for playing and managing digital media files intended to go head-to-head with the market leaders.

Watch out Microsoft, RealNetworks and Apple--here comes Yahoo.

As the heavyweights of streaming media technology duke it out for market share, Yahoo is quietly testing software for playing and managing digital media files intended to go head-to-head with the market leaders.

In addition to playing Internet radio stations, the Yahoo Player supports formats including MP3, Windows Media and CDs.

The company's entry into the market for digital player software comes as established competitors use their players to aggressively promote their online content offerings and aggregation. Yahoo Player leads relentlessly back to Yahoo's own listings, downloads, reviews and other online content.

Yahoo was not immediately available for comment.

The creation of Yahoo Player signals an attempt by the portal to keep up with music services available through many of its rivals. America Online, for instance, owns MP3 player Winamp and Net radio player Spinner.

Lycos, which is being acquired by Terra Networks, acquired MP3 player Sonique last year in an effort to boost its Net music offerings and launched Lycos Radio.

In addition, start-ups such as music-swapping software maker Napster have captured the attention of millions of consumers and have riled the music industry.

The major record labels--Warner Music, BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, Universal Music Group and Sony Music--are making moves to release their songs online after waiting in the wings for many years. But the labels say they are threatened by companies such as Napster, which they allege facilitates the free trade of copyrighted works online.

"Music is becoming a big thing on the Net," said Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Sites like Yahoo are wanting to provide the range of services that their customers are looking for."

Yahoo comes years late to the player software arena; its nascent player launches as RealNetworks celebrates its fifth birthday and eighth player.

But the trial version of Yahoo Player is up-to-date on some hot media player trends. The software, available to the public for download through Yahoo's Broadcast.com site, follows RealNetworks in combining features found in media players with those found in "jukebox" applications for file storage and management.

RealNetworks recently merged its jukebox and player, calling the combined software the Real Entertainment Center.

Like its competitors, the Yahoo Player offers a significant array of Web page-viewing capabilities directly in the player interface. A key component of the browser is its Yahoo Digital Browser. One of three panes in the Yahoo Player interface, along with a playlist and radio bar, the browser calls up a wide variety of Yahoo's audio and video content pages.

Like version 8 of the RealPlayer, unveiled this week, the Yahoo Player supports scrolling pages, forms and buttons, giving it the look and feel of a Web browser.

But--again like RealPlayer 8--Yahoo Player relies on a person's standard Web browser when displaying more complex HTML pages.

Another area in Swimming with sharkswhich Yahoo has caught up with Microsoft and RealNetworks is in its support for skins, or customizable cosmetic interfaces that enable people or content providers to design the look of the player. Yahoo Player's skins, which include such fanciful names as "Gizmo," "Swirl" and "Heartrate," can be found on its site.

The Yahoo Player met with mixed reviews from one beta tester, who admired it for the economy of its technical design but said it came up short on features and functionality.

"I like either the new RealJukebox 2/Player 8 or Windows Media Player 7 better," one beta tester said in an email interview. "But this one seems to be less of a drain of system resources."

The beta tester, who has been evaluating versions of the Yahoo Player since late last year and will be rewarded for his labor with a Yahoo T-shirt, said Yahoo's jukebox capabilities were "pretty good" but didn't measure up to the competition.

"It won't help organize the files as well as Real," the tester said.

RealNetworks was first to market with a jukebox. Microsoft followed recently with its own offering.

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