Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Microsoft is expected to release the first test version of its new Windows Media Player software Wednesday, marking a significant upgrade aimed squarely at the burgeoning portable device market.
The revamped Windows Media Player 10, which will be released in final form to the consumer market later this year, contains substantial changes to the way music, videos and other media can be organized and retrieved. But the biggest changes in the new "technical beta" software will be invisible to most users until new portable music and video players reach store shelves this summer and fall.
"Our real rallying cry here for the player is letting you discover media, play it and take it with you," said Jonathan Usher, director of Microsoft's Windows Media Division.
The software, which incorporates and a new technology allowing computers to communicate with devices such as MP3 players, forms a key component of the company's response to Apple Computer's strong successes with its iPod music player and software.
One of the iPod's key selling points has been its extraordinarily simple ease of use, which lets people load the device with music without having to take anything but the most rudimentary technical steps.
The new Windows Media Player builds on that idea, adding the ability to automatically keep portable devices up to date with changing music and video and photograph collections on a PC.
Some of these automatic synchronization features will be available to a limited number of devices—largely those that Windows can view as an extra data drive—when the software is released on Wednesday. Those devices range from small, flash-based USB storage devices to larger hard-drive-based MP3 players.
More advanced features will be available with the release of a new generation of hardware later in the year, such as the Windows-based Portable Media Center, however. For those devices, the company has created a new technology dubbed Media Transfer Protocol, which will govern the automatic exchange and synchronization of media files.
Analysts said the tight integration between PC software and a wide range of portable media devices was a key goal for Microsoft, but that it would also be important for the company to match the iPod's ease of use. Because so many different hardware manufacturers use Microsoft technology, that goal could be difficult, they noted.
"Microsoft is clearly moving in the right direction," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "But the key here is that Microsoft will have to work with its partners to create something that's the equivalent of the iPod. None of (the rival products) have captured hearts and minds of consumers the way the iPod has."
The new software will also support new digital rights management features that allow subscription-based content, such as that from Napster, to be played on portable devices. Similarly, those features will not be available until the release of new hardware later this year.
Although many of the new Media Player's features will be muted until the release of new hardware, users will be able to browse through new ways of organizing media libraries and take advantage of a considerably simplified interface. The company said it wants to get feedback from "digital music enthusiasts" on those features before a final release.
Along with new customization features, the player will include a new "digital media mall" containing links to services such as Napster, MusicNow and CinemaNow that distribute online content in Microsoft's media formats. The company hopes that link, which replaces the "premium services" section in the old player, will help users find online content more easily.