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.

SuperSite for Windows