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.
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.
With this release, Microsoft has finally surrendered to the almighty MP3. It had never before included software to rip audio CDs to a computer in this format, instead supporting only its Windows Media Audio technology. This stubborn refusal to offer MP3 encoding in the face of near-unanimous consumer demand for it had grown ridiculous years ago.
Microsoft's newfound MP3 support, though welcome, still feels a bit halfhearted. Windows Media Player 10 offers only four levels of MP3 sound quality and omits the "variable bit rate" encoding used by other programs to balance sound quality and file size.
Windows Media Player 10's CD-ripping options also benefit from the elimination of an even more irksome trait of old versions -- a default setting that caused any tracks ripped from CD to be locked to your hard drive. This "protect content" option, a crude attempt by Microsoft to suck up to the recording industry, met no customer demands and provided no real benefit.
A new "Sync" feature aims to match the way iTunes effortlessly synchronizes music libraries to iPods. While Windows Media Player can't talk to an iPod -- just as it can't play songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes store because of restrictions by Apple -- it can transfer music to dozens of other digital-music players, including a new set of audio/video players called Portable Media Centers.
Just plug one in, and the program will copy all or part of your music library onto the thing, depending on how much space it has free. You can pick which songs to synchronize by choosing individual songs or playlists or by letting Windows Media Player make its own choices based on preset criteria.
A similar interface governs burning audio CDs. Here, Windows Media Player does better than iTunes; you're not limited to burning an existing playlist, and you can whip up your own mix from the spot or easily revise an existing track list.
On the other hand, Windows Media Player 10 has no answer to iTunes' sharing feature, which allows you to browse and play through an iTunes song library from a second computer on the same local network.
This release also features Microsoft's new music store, MSN Music, and allows access to other online music stores. MSN Music is still in a test stage, with only half of the 1 million tracks Microsoft says it will offer. The store won't be fully open for business until mid-October or so; I'll take a fuller look at it then.
Meanwhile, here are the basics: Songs cost 99 cents apiece and many albums cost $9.90. Its terms mirror those of Apple's store: You can play your tracks on five computers at any one time, can transfer them to an unlimited number of music players and can burn a playlist to an audio CD seven times.
The important change in Windows Media Player 10 isn't the new store, though -- most people still haven't downloaded songs from online stores. It's simply that this Windows component can now handle the basics of digital music on its own. What took so long?
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.