Redmond Waltzes Into Online Music

Microsoft showed up at the music download party
on Wednesday with a music store wrapped around a new version of the Windows Media Player
(WMP).

The company’s preview release of MSN Music has 500,000 tracks, with plans to reach the
industry standard 1 million tracks in coming weeks. Songs will cost
users 99 cents each, and most full-length albums
will cost $9.99.

Digital rights management technology embedded on the music
files allow listeners to hear downloaded songs on up to five computers.
They can burn a playlist of songs to a CD up to seven times, with
unlimited rights for transferring songs to portable audio devices.

The Microsoft store, which goes head-to-head with similar offerings
from Apple Computer , RealNetworks , Napster (formerly Roxio) and Wal-mart, will allow songs to
be transferred to some 70 portable gadgets, including flash-memory devices,
hard-drive devices and the new Portable Media Center (PMC).
The new service will also support Media Center Edition PCs, which
allows music playback in a living room setting.

The song files are encoded with Microsoft’s Windows Media
variable bitrate encoding, with an average bitrate of 160kbps and a peak
bitrate of 256kbps.

Redmond also plans to secure international partnerships to roll out
the service in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Brazil, Korea
and Australia.

The launch of the service comes at a crucial time for Microsoft’s MSN
division, which has just turned profitable. With the clout of the
Hotmail, MSN Messenger and WMP network to market the service, industry
watchers expect Microsoft to grab a significant share of the billion
dollar music download market.

The MSN Network alone, which includes the ISP service and the Hotmail
e-mail service, attracts 350 million users per month, providing a major
base to market the service.

Apple’s iTunes remains top dog with its iPod advantage, but Microsoft
is hoping the simplicity of the MSN Music offering will become a hit
with Windows users. The company is promising an easy sign-up and
navigation experience “without requiring a complicated setup before you
start browsing the service.”

The embedded search interface will allow shoppers to browse by song
title, album information, artist name or music genre. The search engine
will attempt to correct spelling errors to simplify the experience,
Microsoft said.

“People can choose to download songs or albums to their music library
in as little as one step — without lengthy checkout procedures or
re-entering credit card numbers,” Microsoft said in a statement ahead of
the official store opening.

E-commerce tie-ins with Amazon.com and Barnes &
Noble will shuttle users to purchase albums that are
unavailable online.

To lure shoppers, MSN Music plans to offer exclusive tracks and live
performances. Free streaming radio feeds are also on offer with
one-click shopping tied to the radio streams.

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