Duke It Out on the Jukebox

SAN FRANCISCO (05/03/2000) - The beta release this week of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player 7 adds a digital jukebox to Microsoft's streaming media player. When it bundles the player in Windows Millennium edition, will Microsoft take over music on the desktop?

Windows Media Player 7 adds a graphical interface, better audio/video playback, and integration with the Windows Media guide. And this upgrade is all about the Windows Media format. For better MP3 support, music referrals, and support community, you might still prefer one of the downloadable favorites, MusicMatch Jukebox, RealJukebox, or Winamp.

Format and Player Locked

Like other jukeboxes, the Windows Media Player 7 has a radio tuner, plays MP3 files as well as Microsoft's Windows Media files, and stores and organizes your desktop music. But you can rip CDs (record music as compressed digital files) only as Windows Media Audio files, not in the popular MP3 format.

Encoding only in WMA limits consumer choice significantly, says Rob Grady, a product manager at the competing RealNetworks. Many devices and players do not yet support Windows Media format.

Windows Media Player 7 streams audio and video in the Windows Media format. The Windows Media Guide site boasts more than 60,000 videos, audio, movies, and trailers in that format.

"With Windows Media Player 7, Microsoft is bundling software with other software and bundling a format with a player," says Robert Lord, a product manager at Nullsoft, maker of Winamp. "It does catch up to Winamp in a lot of ways."

Like Winamp, Windows Media Player 7 has customizable skins, surround sound, and graphics visualizations. But Winamp has more.

Winamp's add-ons come from the MP3 enthusiast community, Lord says. "Winamp already has 7000 skins developed and over 300 plug-ins for visualizations, surround sound effects, and burning CDs from MP3s."

A free download, the Winamp jukebox doesn't rip CDs but excels in community and multiformat support, Lord says. America Online recently acquired Winamp and may add its Instant Messenger or ICQ to the player, Lord says.

Not a Jukebox, a Lifestyle

Competitor MusicMatch, in turn, offers strengths in CD quality encoding and music references. It records CDs as MP3s at up to 320 kbps, and also supports WMA. MusicMatch gives you liner notes and album art, and even recommends music.

It can also encode music from analog tapes and LPs.

MusicMatch wants to let people take control of their music, says Bob Ohlweiler, vice president of marketing.

The most popular jukebox, RealJukebox, has customizable skins and supports portable storage media from music players to Iomega drives and CD-R drives.

RealNetworks also plans to add WMA support.

"We support the most file formats and digital rights management solutions," Grady says. Consumers and labels should be able to select the music and technology they prefer, he adds.

According to the Media Metrix March report, RealPlayer has 29 million users and is now the fourth most popular application, Grady says. The company is counting on that popularity and its multiformat support to stave off the Windows Media threat.

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