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Microsoft last night launched itself into the digital music arena with the long-awaited unveiling of Windows Media Technologies 4.0 (WMT), which the company has just made available in beta form on its Web site. At the core of WMT is the MSAudio compression scheme, which the company claims generates files half the size of those produced by MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3 (aka MP3). It's interesting to note that Microsoft has gone back on its earlier claim that MSAudio offered superior sound quality to MP3 -- now it's merely "equivalent quality", confirming reports from Register readers who have already tried the software. Still, in the usual Microsoft 'have cake, will eat' way, the Great Satan of Software cunning pulled out a report from the National Software Testing Laboratories which handily reported that 71 per cent of subjects sat down in front of a PC found MSAudio files sounded better than MP3s when compared with the original audio track, and 81 per cent reckoned it sounded better than RealNetworks' RealAudio G2 format. Of course, "a multimedia PC" in and "office environment" is hardly a sound basis for genuine audiophile testing, and we're forced to wonder why a software testing company was used instead of a hi-fi specialist. Backing up WMT is a new version of the ubiquitous Windows Media Player, which will handle not only the new compression scheme, but WMT's enhanced audio and video streaming technologies. It's notable that Microsoft didn't make too big a deal of these beyond claiming the streamed audio offers "FM Stereo quality", which isn't as precise as it sounds. Real's G2 and the upcoming QuickTime 4.0, which adds MP3 playback and streaming support, don't have much to fear from Microsoft's offering. Windows Media Rights Manager brings to WMT tools for content publishers to determine what kind of licence users have been granted when they download a music track. It all sounds pretty flexible but it has a sinister dimension. Microsoft is clearly attempting to treat music in the same way it treats software: we own, we're just letting you use it for a while. Licensing music rather than selling a copy of it, as is currently the case with CDs, isn't likely to win much support among serious music fans, and may well act contrary to US law such as The Home Recording Act. This permits the user the right to copy music tracks for personal use. This may be impossible in Microsoft's system, which seeks to prevent copyright infringement by preventing duplication rather than by taking legal action against those who make illegal copies. Microsoft is essentially assuming guilt before innocence. De Rigueur for a major IT industry launch is a heap of companies pledging to support the new technology, and WMT was no exception. Support came predominantly from Web-based content providers (Excite, Bloomberg, broadcast.com, CNN, Fox and so on) ambassadors from the music industry were few, just a handful of independent labels -- the lack of a 'big five' presence was telling. Cleverly -- or not so cleverly, since we spotted it -- Microsoft's list of WMT backers was extended by counting some companies more than once. Still, support is likely to grow as WMT moves out of beta testing and Microsoft begins to shower the Net with Windows Media Player 4.0. It's that ubiquity that's going to make life difficult for the likes of RealNetworks, much as earlier Microsoft moves made things difficult for Netscape. Nevertheless, Microsoft made no statements about taking WMT cross platform, so that still leaves other OSes to Real. RealNetworks is the main target here, since it's clearly streamed content that Microsoft is most interested in offering. A separate announcement, made with Reciprocal, the digital rights specialist Microsoft recently gave $15 million and whose rights management system provides the basis for WMT, stated that Microsoft is "looking forward to working with the [music] industry's Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) to further define requirements for software systems that will make high-quality music accessible over the Internet". Still, that's likely to be more Reciprocal's line than Microsoft's, and it will be interesting to see when -- or, indeed, if -- Microsoft supports the SDMI's proposals. ® See also a2b unveils latest digital music player, format RealNetworks buys Xing MP3 technology RealNetworks backs IBM digital music system Sony president announces Netman digital music player

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