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Microsoft Pumps Up ‘Windows Media’

Microsoft Corp. plans to ring in the New Year with a fresh campaign to make its “Windows Media Player” the dominant way to deliver downloadable content to television sets, PCs and hand-held devices.

And it’s bringing in reinforcements.

The software giant next month will roll out a new version of Media Player, which, executives said, will change the experience of watching video delivered via the Internet. MTV Networks has already announced that it will roll out its own music-download service -- to compete with Apple Computer Inc.’s “iTunes” and RealNetworks Inc.’s “Rhapsody” services -- on this new version of Microsoft’s player.

But that’s just the tip of what Microsoft said will be a growing mountain of content that will be geared for its player.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Jan. 5, founder and chairman Bill Gates will not just tout MTVN’s new service, known as Urge, but he is likely to announce

agreements with other content providers, as well. Warming up is a plan to distribute hundreds of popular movies through the player.

Microsoft vice president of entertainment and technology convergence Blair Westlake told Multichannel News the company has cut deals with other media firms to distribute content through Windows Media Player, which will be disclosed in “forthcoming announcements.”

“There are companies -- let’s say that are household names -- that are looking into this space, that are embracing our technology as the technology of choice,” Westlake said.

Those announcements will add on to the relationships Microsoft has already formed across a wide range of media and communications businesses to make Windows Media Player the primary way consumers select and download or stream content from screens in front of their eyes or in their hands.

Microsoft, for instance, has formed relationships with cable and telephone companies such as Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. to provide software for their digital set-top boxes; with Hollywood studios and network programmers including Warner Bros. and Starz Entertainment Group LLC to compress their shows and manage access to them; and with hardware manufacturers such as Toshiba Corp. and Sigma Designs Inc. to provide the on-screen interface for their portable media players.

Microsoft is also trying to make it easier for consumers to use Windows Media technology to move video content from TV to PC and back again.

Earlier this month, Microsoft and the cable-TV industry’s research consortium, Cable Television Laboratories Inc., said a forthcoming set of CableCARDs could be inserted into PCs to decode cable-TV programming and allow it to be viewed on PCs running Windows Media Center technology sometime in 2006.

Consumers will also be able to use Microsoft’s newly introduced “Xbox 360” game player to access video content stored on a PC through a TV.

All of this is designed to strengthen Microsoft’s position in the download and streaming business, which has shown a frenzy of interest from big broadcasting networks, cable and satellite operators and programmers ranging from DirecTV Inc. to NBC since Apple and The Walt Disney Co. reached a pact in early October.

Apple and Disney agreed on an arrangement whereby episodes of popular primetime fare such as Lost and Desperate Housewives from Disney’s ABC television network could be purchased for $1.99 each and downloaded to iPod devices that could play back video and movie content.

The deal with MTV will help Microsoft to get traction in music. Urge will offer consumes more than 2 million songs to download though a la carte and subscription options from all major labels, including Warner Music and Sony BMG.

MTVN officials wouldn’t project what percentage of the music-download business they expect to achieve by the end of next year, but they said they plan to market Urge through MTV: Music Television, VH1 and other networks, with hopes of reaching viewers that don’t yet use a digital-music service.

“You’re not going to see this hot, big success out of the gate,” MTVN senior vice president of digital music and media Jason Hirschhorn said. “This is a long haul for us, and we’re here to stay. We believe that there are tremendous opportunities left in the digital-music space.”

In video programming, Verizon Wireless, the cellular provider controlled by the nation’s largest telephone company, has agreements with Microsoft to use Windows Media technology for its “V CAST” wireless-video service, and it also uses Microsoft software to run its Verizon FiOS TV subscription-TV service. That service is now available in small parts of Texas, Virginia and Florida, but it will roll out to cities in New York and other states in 2006.

Microsoft and MTVN first announced a strategic relationship in January 2004 to collaborate on delivering digital-media content, and they formed a task force aimed at identifying strategic opportunities.

MTVN also used Microsoft’s “Flash” technology to build its ad-supported MTV Overdrive online-video service, which launched in April.

One of Microsoft’s challenges is making video delivered via the Internet a “lean-back” experience, similar to traditional television. Microsoft executives said MTVN is helping it to achieve that goal with its work on the design of the new Windows Media Player.

Executives at both companies declined to discuss details of the new Media Player other than emphasizing that it’s more consumer-friendly and easier to navigate than the current offering, “Windows Media 10.”

“This is taking [MTVN’s] expertise, their understanding of entertainment and the desires of consumers and collaborating with us on how we design and implement the new service and the new player,” said Kevin Unangst, director of Windows Digital Media.

Assembling a compelling library of content has been a challenge for Microsoft, too. For example, the TV section on Windows Media Player only features previews or short clips from programs such as UPN’s Veronica Mars and Fox’s Arrested Development.

“The thing that’s missing from the Microsoft media experience is a reason for being. From a consumer point of view, they can’t figure out for the life of them why they need to have a computer attached to their television. There’s no compelling reason yet,” Points North Group analyst Stewart Wolpin said.

And Microsoft does not have a clear path in its bid to link PCs to televisions. Cable-hardware vendors such as Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. have created their own Multimedia Over Coax Alliance (MoCA), aimed at allowing consumers to access content over home networks and to easily link PCs to TVs.