Today, Microsoft quietly released Windows Media Player (WMP) 11.0 for Windows XP, a major update of its digital media jukebox and a preview of a major new feature in Windows Vista. Microsoft says the product's main features are a new, highly visual UI, simpler access to portable media devices, and integrated quick-search capabilities.
But WMP, once the star of Microsoft's digital media lineup, has been marginalized by recent events inside and outside the company. Apple's free iTunes jukebox, which works natively with the dominant iPod portable player, just last month added a visual UI similar to WMP 11.0's UI. And Microsoft's upcoming Zune portable player will eschew the WMP 11.0 UI in favor of its own proprietary interface. If even Microsoft is skipping WMP 11.0, why would other device makers--or users, for that matter--bother?
Microsoft told me last night that Zune is still built on the Windows Media platform and that the company is committed to innovating in this space with WMP, Vista, and other releases. More than 200 portable devices that are on the market work with WMP 11.0, I was told (although all those devices combined represent only about 10 percent of the market). "We're seeing new \[Windows Media-compatible\] devices released almost every day," Justin Hutchinson, group product manager for Windows Client at Microsoft, told me during a briefing this week. "And we expect that to continue."
There's little doubt that WMP 11.0 is a major improvement over previous WMP releases, and it offers some unique advantages when compared with iTunes and other competing jukebox software. Microsoft is providing ways for online services to integrate deeply into WMP 11.0, and though MTV Network's URGE is the only such service available now, Microsoft says that several other services will soon be jumping on board with similar technologies. Although it couldn't offer any specifics, Microsoft told me that the Vista version of WMP 11.0 will be accompanied by a number of unique new features and third-party releases. It's unclear whether those releases are devices, services, or both.
If you've been using a beta version of WMP 11.0, don't expect any surprises. For example, although a Microsoft representative told me earlier this year that the company was trying to push support for podcasting and other new features into the player, the released WMP 11.0 version offers no functional changes over the betas. Microsoft says it has improved the performance of the player's media library, especially for collections of 10,000 songs or more, and the product's fit and finish since the previous beta release.
Because WMP 11.0 is a free update and is considerably better than its predecessor, most Windows users will want to at least give it a shot. Whether it unseats iTunes on users' hard disks, however, will be determined by one simple thing: Whether an iPod is part of the equation. Like its predecessors, WMP 11.0 is not iPod compatible. And that might be enough to make it an also-ran for the 70 million or so people who have purchased iPods.
I'll be reviewing WMP 11.0 this week on the SuperSite for Windows. You can download the new player from the Microsoft Web site at the URL below.