Microsoft has spent the last few years getting smacked around by Apple in the digital-music market, and it must be getting tired of this treatment. So it's doing something drastic: It's throwing its own MSN Music store under the bus and launching a new music program that spotlights another company's service.
Microsoft's new Windows Media Player 11, released in test form last week, looks and works little like older versions of the company's music and video organizer -- starting with its front-and-center placement for Urge, a new music store from MTV.
Microsoft and MTV say this integration of software and store offers an ease and simplicity to match iTunes. But if a week's trial of the service is any clue, Urge will have a hard time competing with such also-rans as Rhapsody, Yahoo and Napster, let alone Apple.
Urge's biggest departure from earlier Microsoft-based music stores is also its biggest problem: its integration into Windows Media Player 11. Not only does this new, Windows XP-only software promote Urge to the exclusion of other retailers, you can't shop at this store-- or even just play your Urge downloads -- in any earlier version of Windows Media Player.
But Windows Media Player 11 (
The immediate reward for taking that risk is a cleaner, simpler interface. Instead of the dense, screen-filling track lists of earlier releases, Windows Media Player 11 displays songs on your computer as a collection of thumbnail views of album covers (it fetches these images automatically from online databases). It cleverly represents how many songs you have in a given category -- from one artist, in one genre, released in a particular year and so on-- by stacking these thumbnails on top of each other.
Aside from the way this redesign still places the play/pause/stop buttons at the bottom of the screen, as far as possible from every other control, this interface is a smart, creative way to organize a digital music library.
It's too bad that Windows Media Player didn't locate cover-art images reliably -- most of my library was illustrated with generic blank-CD icons. For every obscure indie artist's cover art that the program found, it missed two or three releases from big-name acts. And this feature doesn't work at all if your music files (like many Internet downloads) haven't been tagged with the right artist and album data; Windows Media Player 11 is supposed to fill in such missing information automatically but often did not.
Fortunately, this new software provides a search box at the top-right corner that, as in iTunes, finds songs as you type a query instead of waiting for you to hit the Enter key. Windows Media Player 11 also catches up to iTunes by simplifying the process of collecting a set of songs to transfer to a player or burn to a CD -- and it passes Apple's software by letting you copy music from a player to your library.
Lastly, this update makes it easier to change many settings -- instead of diving into a program-options window, you can select commands from the menus that drop down from the tabs at the top of the window.
The right-most tab links to the new MTV Urge music service. Urge sells music under the same basic terms as other stores: Songs (99 cents each) and albums (usually $9.99) can be played on five computers at any one time, and you can burn seven audio CDs from any one playlist of these downloads.
Urge also lets you rent songs: $9.95 a month (or $99 a year) lets you download all the tracks you want to a computer, while $14.95 ($149 a year) lets you transfer those downloads to most newer Windows Media-compatible players. These rented songs can't be burned to CD and go silent if you stop paying the fees.
By comparison, Napster and Rhapsody offer the same price plans but also let people play entire songs for free -- an unlimited number at Napster, though you can't cue up multiple songs, and 25 a month at Rhapsody. Yahoo's subscription services cost about a third less than Urge, and both it and Rhapsody give subscribers a discount on song purchases.
Urge's inventory of about 2 million songs appears no better than anybody else's, but with a few strange omissions (for example, D.C. punk rockers Fugazi) that may only reflect its relative youth. Its search function shows matching songs as you type a query, often with awkward stutters as it scans through that sizable catalogue. It also has the irritating, unhelpful habit of padding out search results with songs and albums that aren't for sale.
Downloads don't come with any of the extras, such as lyrics, printable booklets and bonus videos, that are bundled with many new albums on iTunes -- you can't even print a CD cover or a track listing.
The biggest omission at Urge, however, is MTV's own identity. Except for a set of custom playlists and "Informer" blogs covering particular genres, little here says "I'm MTV." Urge's Web radio stations are all computer-driven -- and the one I sampled played many of the same songs on consecutive days. This store doesn't even sell music videos (although some can be streamed for free) or any of MTV's own shows.
Like every other Windows Media-based store, Urge suffers from the Not iPod problem -- its downloads don't work on Apple's elegant music players. Instead, you can choose from a wide assortment of other devices that all seem to fall short of the iPod's high standards. Consider the new iRiver Clix: This handsome rectangle of glossy white plastic stuffs its shuffle-playback option two menus deep and shuts off its screen after a minute instead of just dimming it.
But Urge's downloads also can't be played on Windows Mobile handheld organizers and smartphones. If you try to open one, you're sent to a Web page inviting you to install the desktop versions of Windows Media Player 11 and Urge, an impossibility on a mobile device. The final annoyance comes when you copy purchased songs to another computer. Urge will treat them as rented downloads, incapable of being burned to CD, until you sit through a "Restore My Library" procedure that downloads new copies of the music.
Not only has MTV failed to match iTunes, it has repeated some of the worst mistakes of earlier iTunes challengers.
Apple needs -- and customers deserve -- vigorous competition. But that's not going to happen if the best Apple's rivals can manage is a combination of beta software of dubious reliability and a tie-in to a music TV channel that devotes most of its airtime to things besides music.