Two years after Apple Computer's iTunes began its domination of the online music service market, Microsoft and its partners have finally mounted a compelling challenge. Today, MTV Networks' URGE service debuts alongside Windows Media Player (WMP) 11, the latest version of Microsoft's media player software for Windows XP. Together, the two products offer an integrated music experience that goes beyond what Apple offers with iTunes. What the Microsoft camp is missing, of course, is a viable answer to the iPod.

MTV, however, says that URGE isn't designed to unseat Apple. Instead, the company is simply trying to create an Internet identity so it can reach its users in new and exciting ways. "It's not about beating Apple \[or\] Rhapsody," says MTV Chief Digital Officer Jason Hirschhorn, who notes that the key differentiator for URGE is that it includes a wealth of strong editorial content, by which users can find out about new music. "We've got the experts in music here from MTV doing programming across a whole bunch of genres."

URGE offers users access to 18 music genres, which are subdivided into 400 sub-genres. Users who subscribe to one of URGE's All Access subscriptions--$99 to $149 a year--get access to over 500 hand-built playlists and the ability to create automatic playlists that match your tastes. "If you like Coldplay, it's going to give you Coldplay and 20 other artists like Coldplay," Hirschhorn says. The service also offers over 130 radio-like music streams and access to video content from MTV's networks, including MTV, VH1, and CMT.

Another interesting feature is the deep integration with WMP 11. URGE uses the WMP 11 browser metaphor so you can actually browse and search through its over 2 million songs as if they were sitting on your hard drive. Subscribers can drag and drop between the URGE service and the PC, and create playlists that consist of music both on their system and on URGE.

As for the iPod, MTV notes that while Apple has sold tens of millions of the devices, the market for digital media players is still in its early stages. And promising new entries from Creative Technology, iriver, and Samsung are more tightly integrated with WMP 11 because they were co-developed with Microsoft. Also, WMP 11 and URGE are compatible with a new generation of Windows Mobile-based cell phones, which many see as the future of portable music. To date, iTunes is compatible only with a single poorly received Motorola model.

URGE is available only in the United States for now, though international versions will be available soon. My review of WMP 11 is posted on the SuperSite for Windows. I'll be reviewing URGE soon.

  SuperSite for Windows.