Microsoft Corporation on Monday unveiled the latest version of its multimedia player software, Windows Media Player 7.0. As the most popular media player available, Windows Media Player has always offered support for a variety of media formats, but with version 7, the company has added a bizarre new user interface that makes even Apple's QuickTime player look good by comparison. However, the company says that the new interface is designed to offer the features and content consumers want most, and it is fully "skinnable" so that users can easily change the way the program looks and acts.

On that note, Windows Media Player 7 appears to be Microsoft's first real attempt at competing with NullSoft Winamp and RealNetworks' RealPlayer in the features department. The player offers support for CD music, streamed Internet audio and video, Internet radio, and a variety of media formats. It features an enhanced media library so that users can customize and manage media playback in numerous ways, Internet links to media guides and radio stations, and customizable visualization support. And because the Windows Media Player is now fully skinnable, users can change the look and feel of the program on the fly. This is a good thing, because the default look is atrocious. But the skinning feature isn't only of interest to individuals with too much time on their hands: Content providers can skin custom players for their customers. All in all, it's a surprisingly powerful package, especially when one considers the weak players Microsoft has fielded in the past.

"Consumers have told us that they need an easier way to embrace the multiple forms of digital media on their PCs today," says Will Poole, the vice president of the Digital Media Division at Microsoft. "Windows Media Player 7 is designed to bring these activities together into one unified place, and make digital audio and video an easy-to-use experience for PC users of all levels."

If you're interested in Windows Media Player 7, you can download a technology preview now from the Microsoft Web site. However, be advised that the player only runs on Windows 98 and Windows 2000 (no 95 or NT 4 support, sorry) and that it's still a beta product: In a half hour of testing, I was able to crash the player three times. Also, Windows 2000 users might not be able to normally uninstall the product. But if you can past the warnings, meet the OS requirements, and can't wait to have the latest and greatest, head on over to the Microsoft Web site and check it out.

Windows Media Player 7 will also be bundled with Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), which is due to ship in late May