It's amazing to see what an entrenched monopolist will do when it finally meets real competition.
For years, Microsoft saw no threat to its Windows Media Player from such competing music programs as Musicmatch or RealPlayer, which demanded that users either pay up for a full-featured "Pro" or "Plus" version or put up with frequent nags to upgrade.
Transcript: Rob was online to discuss this column and answer other personal tech questions.
So Microsoft's program saw minimal improvement; the company put more effort into enhancing the audio and video formats it plays, which it would love to see Hollywood adopt.
But last October, Apple released a Windows version of its iTunes music jukebox -- and PC users no longer had to choose between Windows Media Player's inadequacies or Real or Musicmatch's annoyances. They could download a free program that provided all the functions, from MP3 ripping to fast CD burning, that cost extra elsewhere.
Somebody at Microsoft must have noticed this change, and so we have the new Windows Media Player 10. With this update -- a free download, Windows XP only, at www.microsoft.com/
windowsmedia -- Windows Media Player moves from unacceptable to usable, and in a few cases, exceptional.
This music, video and DVD program's new interface immediately sets it apart. (Though I still don't see the point of its video support; I just don't see that many people squirreling away video clips on their hard drives the way they collect MP3s. Besides, any machine with a DVD drive already includes separate playback software.)
In place of the old, designed-by-committee interface, major functions are lined up left to right -- "Now Playing," "Library," "Rip," "Burn," "Sync," and "Guide" -- with less extraneous clutter. Window borders sport a slick brushed-aluminum look, as if this application were ordered from the Sharper Image catalogue.
Unfortunately, this program's menus -- needed to access such key features as its options window -- hide behind a tiny icon at the top right corner.
Most playback tasks can be done in this program's Library screen, which offers numerous thoughtful ways to organize a collection. Beyond the usual artist, album and genre groupings, you can sort tracks by such details as their year of release -- just the thing to create a happy-birthday mix CD. The program can generate an extensive array of "auto playlists" based on a long list of custom criteria (for example, what you listen to on weekdays versus weekends).
At the right hand of the screen, a "now playing list" pane allows you to shuffle the order of upcoming tracks. And at the top, there's now a search form that's always present, instead of a button you click to open a search form.