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Microsoft moves in on music downloads

No Apple turnover, this time

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First off, Microsoft launched a new version of Windows XP Media Center Edition, the 2005 version, backed straight away by Dell, Gateway, HP, Toshiba and they say Sony (so far Sony's own Vaio Pocket music products run with XP, but not the media center edition).

Microsoft also added more Extender devices from HP this week and Linksys later this year, which is Microsoft's way of extending PC-held archives to be played on your television. But in truth, the jury is still out on the XP Media Center Edition; it has hardly taken off, although some analysts seem to be wavering and thinking that maybe it will do much better with this edition.

One reason that Media Center 2005 might take off are perhaps the DVR capabilities with three TV tuners in many devices and the fact that some PC manufacturers will be shipping HDTV support by the end of this year. And of course Windows Media Player 10 is bundled with this version which is the format of choice for a number of equipment suppliers trying to eat into the iPod sales.

Device manufacturers announcing new products include Creative, Dell, Gateway, HP, iRiver, Rio, Roc Digital, Samsung, Virgin, as well as handset maker Audiovox and digital media wi-fi suppliers DLink Systems, Linksys, Omnifi and Roku.

So in fact what the press have been playing up is all these combined versus Apple, and asking the question "How can Apple possibly sustain its lead?"

Microsoft's plan seems to be targeted directly at Apple, for the sake of hurting Apple, rather than for the sake of making money. On the one hand it has acted as a design focal point to stimulate all of these companies to offer hardware against Apple.

It's the music, stupid

And on the other it has also provided a route into 30 online music stores around the world through integration with Windows Media Player 10, as well as launching its own MSN Music Store. The plan seems to be that some companies can build online music stores, others can build devices, and Microsoft will make it all come together because it all uses standard software in the middle. Security is assured through the bundled DRM.

Presumably any player can be used with any online music service as long as it uses Microsoft formats. But we'd like to know who, exactly, is responsible for the customer experience? Is it the designer of the portable player hardware, the designer of the online music service or the constraints of Windows Media 10?

Steve Jobs is fond of saying things like, "It's the Music stupid," and he has a point: it begins with the quality of song and its playback, and takes in the breadth of choice, ease of use and enjoyment, and permanent ownership of a collection of music.

Many of these services that Microsoft is supporting want you to pay for a music collection every month for the rest of your life. Stop paying and your subscription service is cut off and you retain no music. These are known to be weak models and perhaps they will fail entirely on the lack of appeal of this business model. The players are attractive mostly only because of price and to a lesser extent extra storage or function. They are not however the leading brand, and they will need something dramatic to differentiate them.

And people are NOT going to buy music BECAUSE it's stored in Windows Media 10, they will need more reason than that.

In fact, in a way, Microsoft can't win. If it quashes Apple iTunes and dominates the market for its own formats, then it will have yet another illegally gained monopoly and the European Commission will be able to thumb their noses at the US Justice Department and say, "I told you so."

Microsoft paints Windows Media Player 10 as a fantastically popular piece of software saying that more than 17 million copies have been downloaded in just the first six weeks. But that has more to do with reminders from Microsoft and media player services saying that people need to upgrade their players, than from any desire on the part of consumers to upgrade to version 10 for extra features.

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