Microsoft's latest software aimed at wooing online music fans may have a tough time because it can't make MP3 files from CDs, observers say.
The latest edition of Windows Media Player, announced on Monday (March 27), is a "jukebox" program to create and organize digital files.
"Jukebox programs have traditionally been for early adopters," said Kevin Unangst, a digital-media product manager at Microsoft. "Our job is to make digital audio and video accessible to the average consumer."
Jukebox software allows users not only to play digital music but also to create it and organize it. A Rage Against the Machine fan, for instance, might use a jukebox program to rip a digital file of "Guerrilla Radio" (RealAudio excerpt) and other Rage songs, then create playlists of the band's music and organize the tracks on a computer by album.
Windows Media Player 7 will be able to record, or rip, digital-music files from CDs, but it will create them in Microsoft's Windows Media format. While that format has advantages in offering half the size and higher sound quality than MP3s, many digital-music fans don't like Windows Media files because the format's technology includes the ability to restrict copying and redistribution.
The Windows Media copy-protection option can be turned off by consumers creating files with Media Player, Unangst said.
MP3s are easily copied, although copying often occurs without permission of the copyright owner. While Microsoft's new player will not create MP3s, it will play them.
The ability to create MP3s, the most popular digital-music format, is crucial to the Media Player's success, according to Aram Sinnreich, who analyzes the industry for Jupiter Communications.
"If this thing doesn't rip to, or play, MP3s, it's not going to be very popular with consumers," he said.
The new edition of the program will also play video and Internet radio stations, include artists and album information from the All Music Guide, transfer music to such portable players as the Rio and Nomad, and sport a sleeker look than current bare-bones Media Player. (SonicNet's parent company, the MTV Interactive Group, owns a stake in Rio developer RioPort.)
A preview version of the software was released Monday for testers and developers. The first official public version is slated for release this summer.
So far, the digital jukebox arena has been ruled by two companies: RealNetworks, maker of the popular RealAudio software, and MusicMatch.
MusicMatch, one of the most popular MP3 ripping programs, recently released its free 5.0 edition with many of the same features promised by the Microsoft player. Senior vice president Bob Ohlweiler said he expects the Microsoft release at first to boost use of MusicMatch by lending legitimacy to digital music.
Further down the road, he predicted, MusicMatch will maintain its appeal with online music aficionados in the same way video game makers and Internet portal sites have fended off competition from Microsoft.
John Parres, who watches the online music industry for Artists Management Group, agreed that Microsoft's corporate heft does not guarantee it a favored seat at the digital table. He noted that the Windows Media music format has yet to become the preferred standard for downloadable music.
"It's a real uphill battle for them," he said. "There's already an international standard it's called MP3."