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MSN Music's Formal Debut

Monday, October 18, 2004;

There's a sometimes-honest excuse in the tech industry for why products never ship on time: "You can't schedule innovation." However, you can schedule marketing. And, with some luck and advance planning, you can get the big product launches timed for the right season.

So my schedule always gets pretty busy this time of year. Looking at the Sundays between now and mid-January, I know what I'll be writing for most of them. Let's see, there's Google Desktop, MSN TV 2 (a revived version of what was once known as WebTV), the cell-phone guide (it's been bumped to Oct. 31), OQO's miniature laptop, the 2005 edition of Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition, the upcoming 1.0 release of Mozilla Firefox, the home-computing guide, a year-in-review column, a report from the Consumer Electronics Show in January... have I left anything out?

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(I hope I haven't sucked all the suspense out of your Sunday newspaper reading for the next three months. I'd also worry about giving away my upcoming column lineup to the competition, but I'm pretty sure their schedules look just like mine.)

On one hand, it's relaxing to know what I'll be writing about that far in advance. On the other hand, I won't mind having a few more curve balls thrown my way after the new year.

What's New at MSN Music?

Since I reviewed Microsoft's MSN Music two Sundays ago, the site had its official debut last Tuesday (read company propaganda). Along with the loss of the phrase "preview release" from the site, what's new with it now?

The bulk of the changes at MSN Music (music.msn.com) consist of various ways for potential buyers to get drawn into the site. As somebody who's always enjoyed aimless browsing in record stores, I have no complaint with these added features:

* A presentation of Billboard magazine's list of top-selling albums serves to convince me that, yes, I really am woefully out of touch with pop culture these days. (Cake really has an album in the top 10?!)

* A "Map of Music" feature allows you to select a decade, then see cities highlighted on a map that produced significant artists in that time. Neat idea, but I can't help noticing that the list of musically notable cities of the 1990s includes "New Jersey" and "UK." I realize Jersey (and parts of the United Kingdom) can sprawl on for a ways, but c'mon, why not give Newark and Manchester their own shout-outs?

* MSN Music's "Listening Booth" allows visitors to hear new albums in their entirety in reasonably high-quality streaming audio. The forward and rewind buttons don't work here (no skipping past the obvious dreck), but otherwise it's a great idea.

* Finally, a "Senior Year Hits" link reveals the, um, dreck that ruled the airwaves back in the day. Somehow, this has not yet inspired me to stock on all the Bobby Brown and Warrant tunes I haven't heard since then.

MSN Music is also now advertising its first big-ticket exclusive, AC/DC. When I wrote my review, it looked like MSN Music would bring both AC/DC and Radiohead to the world of legit music downloads, but only the Australian headbangers have shown up.

Unfortunately, this debut says more about the self- destructive instincts of the music industry than anything else. The band's work is only available as complete albums, not individual songs. I like these guys, but, honestly, "Back In Black" is not Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" -- you don't have to listen to it in its entirety and in its exact order to appreciate it.

The pricing of those albums, by the way, is also on the high side -- $10.89 or $12.87 a pop. That doesn't beat Amazon by much and vastly exceeds a used-CD store's prices.

Lastly, the previously U.S.-only site now has some international reach, open for business in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Korea and Brazil through various partners. (This is a bigger achievement than you might think; the legal work necessary to sell digital music online in separate countries is backbreaking, to the point where I don't know how this business still functions.)

With all these changes, MSN Music still has its unfinished aspects (a catalogue that's well short of the announced goal of 1 million tracks) and bugs (the "This type of document does not have a security certificate" error message I get when I click the "music.msn.com" link at the top of the site's home page). I'll keep testing this service, and at some point revisit it in my column -- I just might need something to write about in March.

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)


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