Microsoft Breaks Into The Download Biz

Music, movies, baseball now available.

Microsoft is looking to take a bite out of Apple's lion's share of the digital-music marketplace with three new products that promise to do whatever Apple's iTunes and iPod can do, and more.

The software company on Thursday (September 2) launched a preview of MSN Music, a digital download service comparable to Apple's iTunes music store and Napster 2.0. The new service allows users to listen, download or browse through a catalog of 500,000 songs from all the major record labels, as well as 3,000 indies. Another half million songs will be added to the library shortly. Like most of its competitors, MSN Music features artist information, streaming music and radio, and charges 99 cents per downloaded track and $9.99 for complete albums.

But unlike iTunes, whose downloads will only play on Apple's own iPod portable device, tracks from MSN Music can be transferred to more than 70 devices, including small flash memory players, ones made by iRiver and Dell, and one of the Windows-compatible Portable Media Centers that Microsoft also unveiled Tuesday.

While this feature is a major step in giving consumers a choice in where they can take their downloads, the point might be moot given that 70 percent of the portable-player market uses iPods, which are not compatible with MSN Music. Because of technology inherent to the iPod, the device will only directly play tracks downloaded or ripped from a CD using iTunes.

MSN Music also boasts exclusive content, such as the four live Kanye West songs currently available, and music from artists — such as Radiohead, Madonna, Dave Matthews Band and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — who have either limited or no tracks at all on other services.

Unlike most portable music players currently on the market, Portable Media Centers are not confined to just audio files but also play video and display still pictures. Available Thursday at Best Buy stores and other retailers shortly, the first of a line of PMCs was developed by Creative Labs Inc. and features a 20 GB hard drive, capable of holding 9,000 songs or 85 hours of video; a 3.8-inch LCD screen; and replaceable, rechargeable batteries capable of continuously playing 22 hours of audio or seven hours of video. It retails for $499, about $100 more than the iPod.

A 20 GB PMC from Samsung, and 20GB and 40GB models from iRiver, will be available later this fall.

Taking advantage of the video capabilities of the PMCs, Major League Baseball and the movie download service CinemaNow have already developed content for the devices. On, PMC users can download full games; 20-minute condensed versions of games, which skim over lengthy at-bats, pitching changes, etc.; weekly blooper and home-run shows; and classic games. CinemaNow, meanwhile, features more than 200 titles. Pay-per-view rentals run $2.99-$3.99, while permanent downloads you can keep forever are priced at $9.99-$14.99.

Tying MSN Music and the PMCs together is Windows Media Player 10, the latest version of Microsoft's popular media player. Featuring a more friendly interface, WMP 10 allows users to rip digital tracks from CDs and transfer them to portable devices, and also download songs from MSN Music and other online stores such as Napster, MusicMatch, MusicNow, CinemaNow and Wal-Mart, among others.

For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.