Today at noon Eastern time, Microsoft issued a public beta release of Windows Media Player (WMP) 10 (code-named Crescent), a major upgrade of its digital-media front end. Now enhanced with a sleeker, easier-to-use UI, WMP 10 appears to address most of the complaints I've had about this product while adding exciting new features related to subscription music services, online stores, and portable devices.
  
"The Crescent wave is about a broader strategy of 'media everywhere'", David Caulton, lead product manager for Windows Media, told me in a recent briefing. "When you acquire content, you should be able to push it from the PC to wherever you want, including portable devices. But there were Digital Rights Management \[DRM\] limitations around subscription content, and you can currently access subscribed content only when you're connected to the Internet with a PC. We're pushing the subscription model to devices, so now you can fill a Portable Media Center (or other portable device) for \[a small fee each\] month instead of buying the content." Caulton pointed out that, by comparison, filling a 20GB Apple iPod with songs from the Apple iTunes Music Store would cost thousands of dollars.
  
Originally intended to be a minor upgrade to WMP 9, Crescent has grown in scope. Now dubbed WMP 10, the software is a major release that addresses three primary concerns. First is a refinement of the UI to make it more streamlined and refined. The taskbar has been moved to a top-mounted row of clearly labeled, task-based navigation-bar buttons (e.g., Burn, Guide, Library, Now Playing, Rip, Sync). Media information, such as media name, artist name, and bit rate, has been moved from its hard-to-see location in the earlier version to a more prominent location in the player's UI. And menus are turned off by default, giving the player a more streamlined look; more advanced users can still access all the player's functionality, however, by running the cursor over the menu area and enabling the menus on the fly.
  
Second, WMP 10 features a new "Live in the Library" theme, in which you can complete all the most important tasks from directly within the Media Library, ala Apple Computer's iTunes, so you don't have to switch from mode to mode to do things such as burn CDs or rip music. To make this functionality possible, Microsoft has placed an always-on live playlist on the right side of the player to give you more control over the currently selected list of media that will play. Furthermore, whereas its predecessor worked only with music and video files, WMP 10 now supports recorded TV programs (recorded on Media Center PCs) and digital photos. You can now create manual and automatic playlists of these media types, rate them from one to five stars, and perform other tasks that were previously available only for music files.
  
Finally, WMP 10 is designed to autosynch with a new generation of smart portable devices, most of which aren't on the market yet but will be by the time the product ships this fall. Using the aforementioned rating and playlist capabilities, you can set up synchronization rules between the player and portable devices that will run automatically. And because WMP 10 supports the management of protected content, including subscribed content from Napster and other services, you can synchronize that content with supported portable devices. WMP 10 also lets these services integrate more seamlessly with the player, so when you're running the next-generation Napster client plug-in, which will ship later this summer, the plug-in will make WMP 10 more Napster-like, with Napster-specific navigation bar buttons. In a demo I received in early April, the Napster client plug-in for WMP displayed buttons such as Library and Radio.
  
Microsoft is quick to point out that this public beta doesn't include all the final product's features and probably won't be acceptable to many users as a replacement for their current WMP versions. For this reason, users who install the beta will be able to roll back their systems to the earlier WMP versions. Microsoft expects to ship the final version of WMP 10 this fall and doesn't currently expect to ship any interim beta releases publicly. I'll post a full preview of the WMP 10 technical beta soon on the SuperSite for Windows. You can download the beta from Microsoft's Web site.