MS takes aim at RealNetworks... again

Microsoft seeks to build a digital media audience with its powerful Media Player 7.0

Microsoft's Windows Media Player 7.0, available for download Monday night at the stroke of midnight, promises an all-in-one player that also helps users organise their audio and video content. "Version 6.4 was a pure media player, but Version 7.0 will be an integrated media player with features dealing with related content," said Geordie Wilson, digital media product manager at Microsoft.

The new features let users create audio CDs with technology from Adaptec and transfer them to several brands of portable players and Pocket PC handheld computers.

The new player acts as a Web radio tuner and a jukebox that allows users to create playlists. It also offers an array of skins so that users can create customised interfaces.

By offering one player with multiple capabilities, Microsoft hopes to make up more ground in its market share battle with RealNetworks.

According to data from Nielsen//NetRatings, the number of content files used by Windows Media Player users grew by 33.9 percent between January and May, compared to 24.8 percent for rival RealNetworks' RealPlayer.

While RealPlayer still dominates the market, analysts say Microsoft's approach has potential -- because it makes the technology transparent to users.

RealPlayer remains the dominant player, however, with more than 25 million home users in the United States for the month of June -- more than twice as many as the Windows Media Player. IDC analyst Malcolm Maclachlan said it is always easier to report higher growth rates when a company is new to a market.

However, Maclachlan said Microsoft's approach has potential because it tries to make the technology transparent to the user.

"The more transparent this becomes, the more successful it will be in the consumer market and others will follow," he said, adding that Microsoft's newest player is another step in making the PC the centre of the entertainment universe, he added.

Microsoft's Wilson maintained that having different applications for audio, video and downloading -- a la RealNetworks -- is confusing to users. But Rob Grady, Real's director of consumer product marketing, said it comes down to a matter of choice.

Real offers separate applications for video (RealPlayer 8.0), audio (RealJukebox 2.0) and download (RealDownload 4.0). Together, they comprise the Real Entertainment Centre.

"Our research shows that users want to have a choice as to what app they want to download," Grady said. "Having one app for everything reduces that, and we want to optimise consumer choice."

Bundling, browser wars revisited Media Player's numbers stand to get a boost with the release of Windows Millennium Edition, due out in September, since the player will be bundled with the operating system.

Chris LeTocq, research director at Dataquest, said the Windows ME bundle could create a battle for player dominance reminiscent of the Netscape Explorer browser wars.

Separately on Monday, Microsoft is offering a new authoring platform for digital media developers, Windows Media Technologies 7.

The new Software Development Kit (SDK) is broadband-ready and promises near-VHS and DVD quality at 400 and 700Kbps compression, plus CD-quality audio.

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