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Wal-Mart Anchors Windows Media Mall

The world's largest software company has teamed with the world's largest retailer to help kick off the latest version of Windows Media Player.

Microsoft and Wal-Mart went live with music downloading services within the new version of Windows Media Player. Microsoft also promised the retail debut of Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Centers.

Wal-Mart announced the launch of its new online music store within the Digital Media Mall in Windows Media Player 10. While the big-box retailer has been selling downloads since March, it's touting the Digital Media Mall plug-in as a faster, easier way to buy music.

"Find a great tune, buy it in two clicks and download it -- all right inside Windows Media Player," the landing page enthuses. The store also can be accessed from Windows Media Player 9. Customers can still purchase directly from Walmart.com as well.

The mall store integrates with Media Player to let users manage libraries and play lists, burn tracks to CDs and transfer music to compatible portable devices, Wal-Mart said. Files are available in Windows Media Audio, and usage rights are uniform across the entire catalog of music.

The Digital Media Mall is a new feature in Media Player 10, released by Microsoft today. In addition to Wal-Mart's service, the mall includes access in the United States to CinemaNow, Musicmatch, MusicNow, Napster and MSN Music. The latest Media Player version supports 70 portable devices and lets users automatically synch music, video, recorded TV and pictures to new Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Centers, which Microsoft said will be available tomorrow at retailers.

Portable Media Centers are a new class of device to store digital entertainment files including photos, recorded TV, home videos and music. Creative Labs' Zen Portable Media Center is available now, with the Samsung YH-999 and the iRiver PMC-100 Portable Media Centers coming this fall.

"Windows Media Player 10 is a key element of Microsoft's strategy to enable digital media everywhere, with even more to come later this year," Will Poole, senior vice president of the Windows Client Division at Microsoft, said in a statement.

Microsoft is looking to the home entertainment sector. to drive growth as the market for PCs moves closer to the saturation point.

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates told an audience at the Consumer Electronic Show in January, "The Portable Media Center is going to not just have your music on it, but it's going to have your movies there, movies for your kids, the movies you like, you just find it out on the Web, download it, off you go."

On Wednesday, Microsoft rolled out its own music download service, MSN Music, with 500,000 tracks available at 99 cents each. It expects to boost the list to 1 million tracks in a few weeks.

Microsoft's digital rights management technology is embedded in both MSN's and Wal-Mart's files, controlling how many times a download can be burned or transferred.

Wal-Mart Music Downloads boasts an expanded catalog and some exclusive tunes. It remains to be seen whether the retailer's rock-bottom pricing combined with aggressive promotions could make it as big a category killer online as it is off.