Microsoft to Launch URGE This Week

Microsoft's next chapter in its battle against the iPod and ITunes begins this week, as the company releases Windows Media Player 11 to the public. Additionally, Microsoft will promote heavily a test version of the URGE music service, a project it co-developed with MTV.

Seeing that a seamless ecosystem is what has propelled the iPod to its iconic status, Microsoft has also taken a page from the Apple playbook and co-developed a portable player called the "Clix." The new device is a project between Windows-based player market leader iRiver and the Redmond company.

The deluge of media-related announcements is seen by some as an indirect admission that the company's previous strategy of allowing freedom among its partners to do as they wish in the digital media space was a failure.

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Companies like Creative have struggled to succeed in a crowded market where more than a half dozen major players plus dozens of smaller outfits compete for less than a fifth of the market. The result has been a disaster not only for most of these companies financially, but for Microsoft in the minds of the consumer.

Microsoft's much-hyped PlaysForSure program ran into issues as Microsoft had to ensure that the multitude of devices would all synchronize correctly with Windows Media Player, many of which didn't.

Additionally, Microsoft had no control over the various music services that have popped up as a result of its open licensing program, This meant that if compatibility issues arose with players, there was little, if anything, the company could do.

In turn, Microsoft s now promoting an entire digital music ecosystem, rather than just focusing on the technology and leaving the rest up to its partners.

Windows Media Player 11, to be a part of Windows Vista and being released in beta form this week, includes several enhancements to better compete with market-leading iTunes. Improvements have been made to PlaysForSure to ensure seamless transfer of music, much like the iPod when connected to iTunes.

The centerpiece of WMP11 will be the URGE music service, which is deeply integrated into the player. While a user would still be able to choose from the half-dozen or so Microsoft-based music services through the WMP, the co-developed offering would receive top billing.

The service will come with nearly two million tracks, and have a two-tier service plan. Those who wish to listen to tracks on their PCs only can register for a $9.95 USD monthly plan, while those wishing to download to compatible players would need to sign up for the $14.95 USD monthly tier.

As well as the subscription offerings, URGE would also allow for per-track downloads at 99 cents a song. Unlike the tracks downloaded through the subscription plan, users would still be able to listen to these tracks after cancellation of those plans.

URGE is expected to go into public beta Wednesday.

Initial reactions to both WMP11 and URGE may give Apple some pause. Testers have said that the way the new version of the media player allows users to browse through a collection of music by album cover rather than list of files is much better than previous WMP versions and even iTunes.

The final piece of the puzzle is the Clix player. According to Sean Alexander, group product manager at Microsoft, the two companies have been working on the unit since late last year.

The device looks much like the iRiver U10 first introduced last year, but there are several key enhancements. "Our team worked closely with iRiver, providing feedback, usability resources, and assistance on interaction design starting with a complete 'teardown' of the existing iRiver U10 product," Alexander said.

Microsoft's role in the development of the player is clear in the user interface and its deep integration with WMP11. Album art, ratings, play count, and playlists all now sync directly with the device, and synchronization speed has been improved.

iRiver is the best selling Windows-based brand, although it runs a distant second to the iPod in terms of global market share. However, it appears that Microsoft may be acknowledging iRiver's success in choosing it as a partner to take on Apple's iPod.

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