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Microsoft Targets Apple with WM9 Series Arrow

Has Apple's successful implementation of digital rights management (DRM) technology in the iTunes storefront forced Microsoft into a digital media strategy shift?

After making a point that advanced features within the Windows Media 9 Series digital media platform would only be available on its flagship Windows platform, Microsoft did a sudden about-turn this week, announcing that a new version of the Windows Media Player (WMP) for the Mac OS X would be released in the fall.

While a version of WMP has always been available for Mac users, DRM capabilities have been somewhat limited and the word is the new WMP for Mac OS X will support full playback of WM9 Series encoded content, including Windows Media DRM versions 7.x through 9.

Jason Reindorp, group manager at Microsoft's digital media division would neither confirm or deny the availability of the DRM versions 7.x features in the coming Mac player but company sources say the plans for a new media player is "centered entirely around our new DRM."

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox, co-publisher of the Microsoft Monitor weblog, believes Microsoft embrace of the Mac is directly linked to Apple's emergence as a legitimate DRM competitor.

"That Microsoft would develop a version of Windows Media Player 9 Series for the Mac is quite the big deal and major turnabout from an earlier product strategy...With the iTunes Music Store, Apple has emerged as a DRM competitor to Microsoft -- and a pretty good one at that. Pretty good because Apple's DRM applies the same usage rights to all songs, a publishing model that differs greatly from most Windows music services," Wilcox noted.

"Windows Media Player 9 Series for the Mac is a big deal. The player's availability could open up quite a bit of digital content that currently is locked to Mac users; that would mean DRM-protected content on CDs and DVDs, too," Wilcox added.Microsoft's Reindorp denied the strategy shift had anything to do with Apple's DRM success. "I think it's actually the opposite. Our DRM has been proven and is well liked and well used. As the music industry has been looking for ways to expand Internet distribution, I think that has put some pressure on Apple to come up with a solution," Reindorp said in an interview with internetnews.com.

He dismissed Apple as a serious rival in the DRM space, arguing that the "closed system" plays to Microsoft's advantage. "Apple's DRM works on a closed system. You have no option but to use a Mac or an iPod," Reindorp said.

Microsoft's newest Windows Media DRM 9 Series, launched in January this year, features real-time encryption (Live DRM) to allow for the immediate protection of live streams. "One of the most recognized strengths of our DRM is the flexible business rules. We let the content provider assign the usage rights so it puts the power in the hands of the providers," he said, in response to chatter that the flexible nature of the Apple iTunes store was a huge hit with content providers.

"It's important to understand we have a well established DRM solution that works across many different types of devices and services. For example, all five major music labels use it, as do many of the online video distribution companies. Apple's, by contrast, only works in a 'closed system' and is much more basic than a flexible DRM system that can tailor usage rules to different applications," he argued.

Steve Vonder Haar, an analyst at Interactive Media Strategies sees the latest move as simply Microsoft expanding its already huge digital media footprint.

"The [digital media] platform war is now a three-way battle between Windows Media 9 Series, RealNetworks' Helix and the open MPEG-4 standard. At the end of the day, Microsoft will be there," Vonder Haar said.

"When it becomes a two-horse race, it'll be a fight between RealNetworks and the MPEG-4 crowd to to be the viable alternative. If you're Microsoft and you want to make sure that you're relevant across a broad number of platforms with Windows Media 9, developing a version for Mac is a way to take some of the wind out of the MPEG-4 sails," he argued. Apple's own QuickTime player uses MPEG-4.

"This is just a good old fashioned war for the hearts and minds of developers. if you make WM9 available and viable on the Mac platform, there will be some percentages of developers who won't bother with MPEG-4. Developers can now reach the Apple audience with Microsoft," Vonder Haar added.

Jupiter Research's Wilcox speculated in his weblog post that the Microsoft about-turn was driven by renewed activity in the digital music download space. "Now, I'm only speculating here, but: Roxio is getting ready to relaunch Pressplay as the new Napster. Right now, Pressplay content is delivered as Windows Media Audio format protected by Microsoft's DRM. Now, it's pretty reasonable to assume Roxio might want to reach the Mac market with Napster, seeing as how good a job Apple has done making the Mac an attractive platform for digital music," Wilcox said.

"I would assume other music distributors depending on Windows Media DRM might want a crack at that market, too. Granted the Mac's paltry compared to Windows, but it's also a market primed for digital music," he added.

Microsoft's Reindorp declined to provide specifics about the features that will be added in the new WMP for Mac. "The current version is not optimized for playback of all Windows Media 9 Series content. We will improve on the quality of playback and compression," he said.

"We normally released new versions the media player for the Mac after major updates to our platform. I can't comment on specific features until we make a formal announcement.

He disclosed that the fall release of the new player would coincide with a new embedded player for the Apple Safari browser.

It has been a busy week for Microsoft's digital media division, which also submitted the video compression technology in Windows Media 9 to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) in a bid to make it an industry standard.

That move, which surprised industry watchers, could eventually lead to the WMV 9 codec becoming an international standard and would remove barriers to adoption, a company spokesman explained.

"It means companies can adopt Windows media without having to contact Microsoft directly," the spokesman said, noting that licensing fees would still be applicable if the codecs are used in set top boxes and other consumer electronic devices.

Rivals RealNetworks (with Helix) and Apple (with MPEG-4) have already adopted the open standards route to embrace digital media content providers.

* Editor's Note: Jupiter Research and Microsoft Monitor are owned by Jupitermedia Corp., the parent company of this Web site.