Windows Media Player 11 Public Beta, URGE Service Launch

This week, Microsoft will release an initial public beta version of Windows Media Player (WMP) 11, its next-generation media player, which comes with an integrated version of URGE, MTV Networks' new online music service. The companies hope that the combination of WMP 11 and URGE will offer consumers a compelling alternative to Apple's dominant iTunes Music Store. There's just one problem: Neither WMP 11 or URGE is compatible with Apple's other dominant product, the iPod.

That said, the WMP 11 beta should surprise some people: It features a simple and dramatically visual UI that far outstrips that of iTunes. The media library is displayed using visual representations of each CD album copied to the PC, while new playback controls and a sleek black veneer add a touch of class and a more professional look than previous WMP versions. Where WMP 11 is graphical and fast moving, iTunes more closely resembles a boring database or spreadsheet application, with endless lines of text. In that respect, WMP 11 has a real advantage over Apple's product.

Like previous WMP versions, WMP 11 integrates with several online music services, including MSN Music and Napster. But Microsoft designed (and, as it turns out, delayed) WMP 11 so that it would integrate with URGE, which, despite the hype and fanfare, simply apes the offerings previously seen with Napster. URGE offers a library of over 2 million songs, and consumers can choose to purchase songs individually for 99 cents apiece or subscribe to one of two different services for monthly or yearly fees. The only really new thing here is MTV's involvement. The idea, apparently, is that MTV is popular enough to lure younger users away from iTunes.

WMP 11 was also co-designed with several new portable MP3 players from companies such as Creative Technology, iriver, and Samsung. The plan here, of course, is to offer consumers an end-to-end experience that rivals that of iTunes and the iPod. In my testing of an iriver clix with WMP 11 during the past few weeks, I've found the combination to be quite useable, but it doesn't approach the elegance of the integration offered by iTunes and iPod. Where WMP 11 and the iriver clix outshine Apple, however, are cost, performance, and compatibility. That said, Microsoft and its partners have long offered such advantages over the iPod yet still haven't dampened consumer enthusiasm for Apple's offerings one bit.

WMP 11 Beta is free and requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2). The final version of WMP 11 will ship later this year with minor improvements to both the player and URGE, including more pervasive home network media-sharing capabilities. URGE will officially launch on Wednesday. For more information, please see my WMP 11 screenshot gallery on the SuperSite for Windows. I'll have reviews of WMP 11, URGE, and the iriver clix available soon. http://www.winsupersite.com/article/showcase/windows-media-player-11-for-windows-xp-screenshot-gallery-1.aspx

DOJ: IE 7 No Threat to Google

In a stunning development, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said late Friday that Microsoft's decision to use an integrated search box in Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 7 that defaults to MSN Search does not pose a competitive threat. Internet search giant Google had previously complained to both the DOJ and antitrust officials at the European Union (EU) that Microsoft's decision to add the feature was an antitrust violation.

In a court filing, the DOJ noted that Microsoft had first briefed it about IE 7's search box months ago. The feature is easily modified to use any Internet search engine, including that of Google, the DOJ said, "using a relatively straightforward method for the user to select a different search engine from the initial default."

Furthermore, the DOJ wrote, Microsoft's actions with IE 7 are a far cry from the anticompetitive behavior that got the software giant into legal hot water almost a decade ago. The reason? IE 7 respects changes that the user made prior to installing this version of the browser. If the browser was previously using a search service from Google or Yahoo by default, IE 7 will not change that choice to MSN Search when the product is installed. IE 7 "only uses MSN Search if no default has been set." The DOJ has "concluded \[its\] work on this matter," the filing reads.

Microsoft Antitrust Oversight Extended to 2009

As part of a regularly scheduled status report about Microsoft's compliance with its 2002 US antitrust settlement, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and several US states say that the software giant is falling short of its requirements. Thus, the DOJ will extend regulatory oversight of the company for two more years, through 2009. Microsoft, the DOJ and states say, agrees that it hasn't complied fully and has agreed to the extension.

"An extension is necessary due to Microsoft’s difficulty in improving the technical documentation it provides to license," the DOJ wrote in a joint filing with the software giant. "Microsoft will rewrite significant portions of the documentation in an effort to substantially improve the overall quality of the documentation."

To address complaints about the technical information it must offer competitors as part of its settlement, Microsoft has put Bob Muglia, a senior company executive, in charge of the project. Bill Lockyer, the attorney general of California, says that while Microsoft has fallen short of complying with the antitrust settlement, "to its credit, the company has acknowledged that failure, agreed to go back to the drawing board, and accepted this extension."