WinInfo Daily UPDATE, June 2, 2004

Microsoft Issues Public WMP Beta

Today at noon Eastern time, Microsoft issued a public beta release of Windows Media Player (WMP) 10 (code-named Crescent), a major upgrade of its digital-media front end. Now enhanced with a sleeker, easier-to-use UI, WMP 10 appears to address most of the complaints I've had about this product while adding exciting new features related to subscription music services, online stores, and portable devices. 

"The Crescent wave is about a broader strategy of 'media everywhere'", David Caulton, lead product manager for Windows Media, told me in a recent briefing. "When you acquire content, you should be able to push it from the PC to wherever you want, including portable devices. But there were Digital Rights Management \[DRM\] limitations around subscription content, and you can currently access subscribed content only when you're connected to the Internet with a PC. We're pushing the subscription model to devices, so now you can fill a Portable Media Center (or other portable device) for \[a small fee each\] month instead of buying the content." Caulton pointed out that, by comparison, filling a 20GB Apple iPod with songs from the Apple iTunes Music Store would cost thousands of dollars.

Originally intended to be a minor upgrade to WMP 9, Crescent has grown in scope. Now dubbed WMP 10, the software is a major release that addresses three primary concerns. First is a refinement of the UI to make it more streamlined and refined. The taskbar has been moved to a top-mounted row of clearly labeled, task-based navigation-bar buttons (e.g., Burn, Guide, Library, Now Playing, Rip, Sync). Media information, such as media name, artist name, and bit rate, has been moved from its hard-to-see location in the earlier version to a more prominent location in the player's UI. And menus are turned off by default, giving the player a more streamlined look; more advanced users can still access all the player's functionality, however, by running the cursor over the menu area and enabling the menus on the fly. 

Second, WMP 10 features a new "Live in the Library" theme, in which you can complete all the most important tasks from directly within the Media Library, ala Apple Computer's iTunes, so you don't have to switch from mode to mode to do things such as burn CDs or rip music. To make this functionality possible, Microsoft has placed an always-on live playlist on the right side of the player to give you more control over the currently selected list of media that will play. Furthermore, whereas its predecessor worked only with music and video files, WMP 10 now supports recorded TV programs (recorded on Media Center PCs) and digital photos. You can now create manual and automatic playlists of these media types, rate them from one to five stars, and perform other tasks that were previously available only for music files.

Finally, WMP 10 is designed to autosynch with a new generation of smart portable devices, most of which aren't on the market yet but will be by the time the product ships this fall. Using the aforementioned rating and playlist capabilities, you can set up synchronization rules between the player and portable devices that will run automatically. And because WMP 10 supports the management of protected content, including subscribed content from Napster and other services, you can synchronize that content with supported portable devices. WMP 10 also lets these services integrate more seamlessly with the player, so when you're running the next-generation Napster client plug-in, which will ship later this summer, the plug-in will make WMP 10 more Napster-like, with Napster-specific navigation bar buttons. In a demo I received in early April, the Napster client plug-in for WMP displayed buttons such as Library and Radio. 

Microsoft is quick to point out that this public beta doesn't include all the final product's features and probably won't be acceptable to many users as a replacement for their current WMP versions. For this reason, users who install the beta will be able to roll back their systems to the earlier WMP versions. Microsoft expects to ship the final version of WMP 10 this fall and doesn't currently expect to ship any interim beta releases publicly. I'll post a full preview of the WMP 10 technical beta soon on the SuperSite for Windows (see the first URL below). You can download the beta from Microsoft's Web site (see the second URL below).

Sony Drops Out of US PDA Market  

Yesterday, consumer-electronics giant Sony announced its sudden and unexpected departure from the US PDA market, dropping development of its CLIE product line in the United States for the foreseeable future. Sony's CLIE devices are currently the third best-selling PDAs, behind palmONE's Palm OS-based devices and HP's Pocket PCs. 

Sony says that it's "reassessing" its CLIE product line and won't release new CLIE models to the US market this fall; instead, the company will continue to support existing customers and let the existing stock of devices sell out. Although the departure of the number-three PDA maker was unexpected, analysts had already warned that sales of so-called conventional PDAs--those devices that don't include smart phone features--would nosedive in the coming months after experiencing flat sales during the last 2 years. And because Sony makes only conventional PDAs, the company apparently felt it was time to step back and cut its losses. 

The move couldn't come at a worse time for PalmSource, which makes the Palm OS that powers Sony's devices. Although market-leader palmONE also uses the OS, devices based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile-based Pocket PC platform have pulled even, overall, with Palm OS devices and are expected to soon surpass Palm OS sales. With a major player such as Sony dropping out of the race, that reversal of market fortunes will no doubt happen even more quickly. However, Sony's exit could bolster palmONE's sales, at least briefly.

Sony entered the PDA market 4 years ago and quickly added multimedia features and a unique software front end to its devices. The company has shipped more than 30 CLIE models over the years and recently began experimenting with innovative high-end devices sporting built-in keyboards. Although a favorite of reviewers, the high-end CLIEs never sold well, largely because of their exorbitant, notebook PC-like prices. Not coincidentally, the best-selling PDAs lately have been low-end models selling in the $100 to $200 range, and Sony hasn't offered a product that competed well in that price range. As a result, Sony's share of the PDA market dropped from 13 percent to 8.4 percent.

Sony was careful to note that it will continue to sell cell phones through its Sony Ericsson division and will continue development of the PSP, a portable PlayStation game system that will ship in Japan late this year. And the company will presumably continue to create conventional PDAs for the gadget-happy Japanese market.  

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