Microsoft and MTV take on Apple iTunes

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday will release a beta version of Windows Media Player 11, a more stylish version of its media software that mimics the sleekness of its main competitor, Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes.

The media player will be launched in conjunction with an online music store from MTV Networks that has been integrated with Microsoft’s media software, allowing users to search and download songs and albums. The partnership, announced in January, unites two industry giants — Microsoft and MTV — against Apple’s market-leading iPod media players and iTunes music store.

MTV’s music service, called Urge, will have an online catalog of 2 million songs. Users will be able to download single tracks or albums, similar to iTunes, or pay a monthly subscription fee to access the entire catalog, a feature offered by other rivals such as Yahoo Inc. and Napster LLC. MTV will charge US$0.99 cents per song and $9.95 for most albums.

Urge will be available initially only in the United States, however, and the beta version of Microsoft’s media software won’t be linked to an online music store in other parts of the world. That won’t happen until the final version of Windows Media Player 11 is released, Microsoft said. No date for that has been set, although the player will be included with its Windows Vista operating system, due in early 2007. Microsoft plans to announce online music partners in other regions in the future, it said.

The improvements to Microsoft’s media player appear to draw from the attractive interface of iTunes. Microsoft has added browsing by album cover and a search box to pinpoint media. It said it has also improved how content is managed, by reducing the clicks needed to burn a CD, for example.

The launch of Windows Media Player 11 and MTV’s Urge service is Microsoft’s strongest offering yet against Apple, which holds about 70 percent of the digital music download market. It’s a direct face-off, since songs from the Urge service will not play on the iPod, just as songs from iTunes can’t be played easily on non-Apple devices.

Although Microsoft and MTV are entering a highly competitive digital music market, both have strengths. Microsoft dominates the desktop software market, and MTV has other content, such as articles and videos, that can be used with music downloads for a strong overall package, said Jonathan Arber, a research analyst with Ovum Ltd. in London.

“I think there’s a real chance we will see them become the top of the second tier below Apple,” he said.

Window Media Player will end up sitting on most people’s desktop, and the one-click access to Urge means users will be less inclined to pursue other music services, Arber said. That’s assuming the software and the service work, of course.

“They can’t really afford to have any bugs in there,” Arber said. “If there are any key problems here — big bugs, crashes — it could very well kill Urge off before it is started.”

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