Microsoft launches MSN Music service

Microsoft Corp. is offering a "preview release" of MSN Music, its answer to Apple's popular iTunes Music Store. The music download service is available in the United States exclusively for users of the Windows operating system, and is built in to Microsoft's new Windows Media Player 10 software as well. Microsoft's introduction gives the public a look at what Apple may be up against as the company enjoys a dominant position in the digital music download market.

The audio tracks available for download from MSN Music service are protected through Microsoft's own Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme, and are encoded via Windows Media Audio (WMA) format using variable bit-rate (VBR) encoding, with an average bit rate of 160Kbps and a peak bit rate of 256Kbps. This differs from Apple's offering -- iTunes Music Store songs are uniformly encoded using the Advanced Audio Codec (AAC) format at 128Kbps -- which Apple says is a more efficient format that sounds as good as music encoded in other formats at higher bit rates.

The MSN Music service offers more than 500,000 downloadable tracks in its preview release form, but Microsoft said that it has licensed more than 1 million tracks from more than 3,000 major and independent music labels. MSN Music will also feature exclusive content from popular performers, and also makes available a CD purchase option for content not available for download. Streaming music is also part of the MSN Music service -- it offers free streaming content with more than 50 genre-based radio stations, and music from hundreds of local stations across the United States.

Apple's iPod supports no other DRM encryption schemes besides the FairPlay technology used by the iTunes Music Store, so Windows users who tout iPods won't be able to transfer MSN Music tunes to their iPod. RealNetworks recently made waves when it introduced "Harmony," a new technology that lets songs sold through its own Real Music Store service play on the iPod, though Apple seems determined to fight RealNetworks' efforts tooth and nail. Without any indication that Microsoft will license Harmony or develop its own technological workaround to make MSN Music iPod compatible, the company is instead vaunting MSN Music's support by more than 70 different Windows Media-compatible devices, including flash memory storage-based players to hard drive-based devices. MSN Music is also supported on Media Center PCs.

Video to Go

Various industry pundits and others have clamored for Apple to develop a video version of its iPod, though Apple still hasn't answered the call. Third parties have developed portable digital video players, and some of them even work on the Mac, though they're still a comparatively small niche in the market. Microsoft seems determined to open this niche up to mainstream acceptance with the introduction of "Portable Media Centers," a new class of portable digital entertainment products that play back recorded TV, music -- including MSN Music songs -- movies and pictures.

Video content is being provided from services including Major League Baseball's MLB.com and CinemaNow, which promises an initial release of more than 200 movies. Users of Media Center Edition PCs will be able to transfer recorded TV shows directly to their Portable Media Centers, also.

The first company out of the gate with a Portable Media Center is Creative, whose Zen Portable Media Center hits retail stores just as the new devices are being announced. The US$499 devices feature 20GB hard drives, replaceable and rechargeable batteries with a seven hour charge life for video or 22 for audio, and a 3.8-inch TFT LCD display. Microsoft indicates that Samsung Electronics and iRiver International will release their own Portable Media Center devices later this year.

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