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The Other 800-Pound Gorilla: What is Microsoft Up to?

Do not wake the sleeping giant. It is big, has lots of reserves, and can keep slogging away until you beg for mercy. Microsoft is running late for the digital music store party. It did the same for the Web. (Do you remember a company called Netscape? No? Neither do I.) Now Microsoft owns it.

Microsoft has been very busy with its own Windows Media Player. The recently released version 10 allows you to link all your online stores, such as Napster and Musicmatch, into one. There is one party missing, though: Apple.

Microsoft has its rival squarely in its sights. The iPod has been too successful. Microsoft sees Palm devices for media as being the next big thing. Right now, new models are shipping that support technology from Microsoft that will enable you to watch movies as well as listen to music. The MP3 player, it seems, is evolving.

What Microsoft is failing to do, however, is create clean products that make it easy to use media. For instance, Microsoft provides the support for Digital Music Stores, the software for Digital Rights Management, and even the file type for the media. What Microsoft is not doing is creating the physical MP3 players—it relies on third-party vendors to do this. Also, Microsoft does not manage its own content. Again, it relies on third-party vendors to deliver on this.

But what Microsoft has demonstrated is that it has the resources to keep going at it until it gets it right (or convince enough people that it's getting it right).

The initial new foray is the new MSN Music Store. If you have Windows Media Player 10, the store is built right into the software. If you do not, go here. The store operates in much the same way as iTunes does, except that you have to get your credit card out each time you want to use the store. There are unique songs and playlists you can choose from, and soon you will be able to rent music.

Renting will be a great way to listen to music. You pay either a really small amount for each song (such as a penny) or a fixed rate (maybe $14.95) for as many songs as you can download.

The only restriction is that you can't burn the songs to a CD. But who cares? With all the add-on tools for MP3 players, I gave up listening to CDs months ago. The other cool feature I like about the MSN Music Store is that you can buy songs from international versions of the store. For instance, I can go to the UK store and buy tracks by Robbie Williams that have not been released in the U.S.

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