Anyone trying to understand the future of Microsoft in a post-monopoly world should take a careful look at the latest Windows Media player and web site, windowsmedia.com. It will show you just how far Microsoft has come in terms of integrating the web into the Windows operating system, and how it will be impossible to disconnect the two, no matter what legal rulings may require or transpire.
Windows Media, for those of you who have been under a rock, is Microsoft's answer to Real's player to let you listen and view multimedia content. The latest version released last month does much more than play audio and video clips. It has become a way of life, a user interface, a web site, and a mechanism for searching for audio (and video) entertainment. And, while it pains me to say this, I think the world is better off with it than without it. It does a better job integrating into my applications and my desktop, and has the best user interface of similar products. In short, it is a tour de force.
Microsoft has taken the simple media player and transformed it into a 20 megabyte applications colossus. It reaches deeply into the Windows operating system and out into the web, bringing you a very simple but powerful means to search for your favorite artist and recording. If you can't or don't want to download the player, you can get an idea of the user interface by going to the windowsmedia web site in an ordinary browser. You can quickly search on songs from your favorite artist, bring up a discography and listen to short 30-second clips from numerous albums.
Forget about Napster and its various offspring. This is the way we all will be finding our music from here on out. Granted, we'll have to pay for songs (versus sharing and stealing them), but eventually the music companies will figure this out and attach a low-ehough price tag on per-song downloads. With WindowsMedia, you can search for streaming audio from your favorite radio stations, although the software isn't quite as wonderful as I'd like here: it couldn't find my wife's favorite WFUV station and once I did locate its stream it wasn't easy to add it to my favorites list.
You can see why I like the windowsmedia site and software so much by comparing it to its competitors. Take for example the latest music search tool from Altavista: it is dog-ugly, disorganized, and difficult. You get, instead of a nicely formatted page showing you a picture of the album and a song list and brief bio, the usual spew from a search engine with hundreds of irrelevant hits and barely enough information to figure out whether the link is worthy of your clickstream.
This is why Microsoft ultimately wins: it makes better, more attractive, and more useful software. Again, it is hard for me to type this -- I have plenty to argue with Microsoft on other matters. But when it comes to user interface design, they (eventually) get it right, and Windows Media is spot-on target.
There is more to the Windows Media story than nice searches, too. The latest Nomad MP3 player from Creative Labs can play .WMF sound files in addition to MP3s. (You first have to update its firmware, a process that wasn't completely effortless.) And you can use the Windows Media player to organize your music and download it to the Nomad quite nicely (although it isn't possible to transfer any of those 30 second clips from the net -- I believe this is because of the copy protection scheme employed by Microsoft). Of course, the number of WMF music files is a mere trifle when compared to MP3s, but so what.
The more time you spend with Windows Media software and web site, the more you can see that Microsoft is waging war on many fronts:
Granted, Microsoft isn't going at this alone. Windows Media makes use of technologies from various other parties, but does so in a well-integrated way. All of this really started back when IE was brought into the operating system for Windows 95.5 (the updates issued after 1997): now Windows Media player can make use of this technology to present the appropriate web pages "inside" its player interface, the same look and feel that anyone using IE would get if they connected to the windowsmedia.com web site. It is a very ingenious plan, and one that any lawyer involved in the anti-trust case will have a fine time racking up billable hours trying to figure out. In the meantime, the rest of us can enjoy searching for our favorite songs.
If you would like to hear other views about this topic, tune in to the O'Reilly Network and listen to an interview with myself, Dave Sims, Steve McCannell and Paul Schindler about MP3s, Real vs. Microsoft, and other issues.
My latest column for SD Times is a pitch to run Linux on your IBM mainframe. No, this is serious: that hulking piece of iron sitting on your raised floor makes a darn good Linux machine. Check it out here:
And my latest review for Network World covers a bunch of small office firewalls, where I find the SonicWall superior.
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