If you thought Microsoft's headlong rush to dominate every niche of its market might have been tempered by a federal judge's antitrust ruling, take a look at the latest release of Windows Media Player.
It won't cost you anything - it's available for downloading from www.windowsmedia.com. Just make sure you're running Windows 98 - it won't work with Win 95 or NT.
The new software will replace your existing version of Media Player, which was once a simple utility program that played audio and video files and controlled your CD-ROM whenever you inserted a music disc.
WMP Version 7 is much more. It's an excellent media manager that now competes with the best third-party programs, including RealJukebox, WinAmp, MusicMatch Jukebox, Creative's LavaPlayer and RioPort Audio Manager.
Like most of these, WMP now allows you to organize music files into a library, build playlists and sit back to enjoy an evening of music while you're entertained visually by slick, pulsating graphics. It will "rip" tracks from music CDs and record them as compressed files on your hard disk. If you have a CD-Rom drive, it can record PC music files as standard CD tracks. The new media player incorporates whimsical "skins" that decorate it on your screen, and it does an excellent job of displaying streaming video on the Web.
So what's not to like?
First, consider what WMP doesn't do. Then consider that this media player that will be bundled with every new PC once Windows Millenium Edition is released this fall. Then you'll see the hand of Gates & Co. at work. Like the giveaway of Internet Explorer-which Microsoft built into Windows to destroy competition in the browser market-WMP could change the Internet music and video landscape. In Microsoft's favor, of course. This might not be in your best interest and mine.
Exhibit No. 1, your honor. Windows Media Player will play the wildly popular MP3 files that have become the de facto standard for music exchanged on the Internet. But when it "rips" tracks from a CD, it will record them only in Microsoft's own Windows Media Audio format (with the file extension WMA). Many other players give you a choice.
There's nothing inherently wrong with WMA. In fact, Microsoft can make a good argument that its technology produces slightly smaller files with better sound quality (although it takes a good ear to tell the difference). But consider that MP3 is an open standard, developed by a group of industry experts, while Microsoft controls the Windows Media format and can change it at will.
Unlike MP3 files, which can be freely copied, Windows Media Audio files have the potential to enforce what Microsoft calls "Digital Rights Management." That's fancy language for copy protection.
The recording industry, panicked by wholesale piracy of its songs on the Internet, is searching deperately for a digital format that will let it control who can play its music and when. But WMA and several other "secure" formats incorporate schemes that go beyond mere copy protection. They can impose restrictions on music far more severe than anything that existed before the digital revolution.
For example, while you can use a CD with any player, WMA and similar formats can be set up so that you can only play a song on a single PC or portable player. In fact, it's possible to adjust the format so that a record company can charge you each time you play a tune. It can make the song expire after a certain number of plays. Or force you to download it repeatedly to a portable player.
Doesn't sound like fun to me. But the record industry-with Microsoft now leading the charge-hopes this model will eventually become the standard. It longs for the day when people won't remember when they could buy music and play it anywhere.
By default, Microsoft turns this copy protection on when you rip a track from a CD. This means you may have trouble if you try to play the file on another machine. If you click through the fine print in the help files, Microsoft tells you how to turn it off. But it also warns you that by doing so, you might have trouble playing the file on portable gadgets that look for a "license" embedded in the file. Do you really want to be bothered with this?
Exhibit No. 2. For years, Microsoft has been rankled because another outfit set the standards for Web audio and video broadcasting. This process is known in the trade as "streaming." An outfit called RealNetworks, founded by a onetime Microsoft executive Rob Glaser, got the jump on that market, and most Internet broadcasts are transmitted in RealAudio or video formats.
Broadcasters pay RealNetworks for the right to use its broacast technology, while consumers can download a basic version of the RealPlayer free of charge. Many other multimedia players support the RealAudio, too.
Not surprisingly, the new Windows Media Player doesn't support RealAudio-only Microsoft's streaming technology. So if you're interested in Internet radio or video you'll have to use RealPlayer or compatible software. Once again, Microsoft is hoping that time is on its side. If enough new PCs are sold supporting Microsoft's broadcast format by default, it could eventually become the standard, or at least put a real crimp in RealNetworks business. Do you and I benefit from incompatible and competing standards? Probably not.
By the way, Microsoft is not acting alone. The makers of other multimedia players are also implementing Digital Rights Management to meet the demands of a recording industry that wants to sell music online on terms that are highly unfavorable to the consumer. And RealNetworks has gotten itself in trouble once over software that spied on customers and reported their listening habits.
But none of these has the impact of Windows Media Player, which will be the default player on every new PC.
Microsoft is giving away a pretty good piece of software that can handle most multimedia chores. But like the original Trojan Horse, this one is more than it appears to be.