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, personal computers and handheld devices.
And it is bringing in reinforcements.
The software giant next month will roll out a new version of the media player which executives say will change the experience of watching Internet-delivered video. Already, MTV Networks has announced it will roll out its own music download service on this new version of Microsoft’s player, competing with Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes and Real Networks Inc.’s Rhapsody.
But that’s just the tip of what Microsoft says will be a growing mountain of content geared for its player.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 5, founder and chairman Bill Gates will not just tout MTV’s new service, known as Urge, but is likely to announce agreements with other content providers as well.
Warming up: A plan to distribute hundreds of popular movies through the player.
Microsoft vice president of entertainment and technology convergence Blair Westlake told Multichannel News last week that Microsoft 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 to the relationships that Microsoft has already formed across a wide range of media and communication 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; Hollywood studios and network programmers such as Warner Bros. and Starz Entertainment Group to compress their shows and manage the access to them, and hardware manufacturers such as Toshiba and Sigma Designs 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 television set to personal computer and back again.
Earlier this month, Microsoft and the cable TV industry’s research consortium, CableLabs, said a forthcoming set of CableCards could be inserted into personal computers to decode cable TV programming and allow it to be viewed on PCs running Windows Media Center technology some time in 2006. Consumers also will be able to use Microsoft’s newly introduced Xbox 360 game player to access video content stored on a PC through a TV.
All this is designed to strengthen Microsoft’s position in the download and streaming business, which has shown a frenzy of interest from big broadcast networks, cable and satellite operators and programmers ranging from DirecTV to NBC, since Apple and The Walt Disney Co. in early October agreed on an arrangement whereby episodes of popular primetime fare such as Lost and Desperate Housewives, from its 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 get traction in music. Urge will offer consumers more than 2 million songs to download though a la carte and subscription options from all major labels, including Warner Music and Sony BMG.
MTV 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, 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,” said MTV chief digital officer Jason Hirschhorn. “This is a long haul for us, and we’re here to stay. We believe that there’s tremendous opportunities left in the digital music space.”