First launched in September 2004 as a public beta, Microsoft's MSN Music service went live in October 2004 and has been improving in small but appreciable steps ever since. Compared to rival services such as Apple iTunes Music Store, RealPlayer Music Store, and the many Windows Media Audio (WMA) based services such as Napster, MSN Music offers a number of intriguing benefits. Indeed, from testing these services over the past few months, it's clear that MSN Music is one of the strongest WMA-based contenders available. Whether it beats market leader iTunes or RealPlayer Music Store, both of which sell songs based on the AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) format, remains to be seen.

Back in September, I provided a preview of MSN Music, based on my experience using the beta release of the service. If you haven't read it yet, please do so now: This review will focus largely on what's changed since MSN Music was "finalized" (though, truly, a service like MSN Music is never really finalized but rather is improved over time) and how it compares to other similar services. But first, let's examine why Microsoft decided to ply the digital music services business. Because, originally, that wasn't Microsoft's plan at all.

Why MSN Music?

Back in 2003, Microsoft's digital music strategy was pretty clear-cut. The company was pushing its WMA and WMV (Windows Media Video) formats to third parties, and following the community model that was so successful with Windows. By fostering a massive community of third party products and services, and by bundling its digital media platform technologies--like Windows Media Player and the audio/video formats--in its dominant Windows operating systems, Microsoft figured that its digital media technologies would become pervasive and de facto standards. Indeed, this strategy had worked so many times in the past, that it seemed like a given that it would work again. Besides, WMA and WMV were technically superior to the competition, a benefit Microsoft could not always have claimed in the past.

Also, give Microsoft credit for being a good partner. As a new generation of online music services like Napster and BuyMusic.com began to appear in mid-to-late 2003, Microsoft didn't generally compete with these services. Instead, Napster and its ilk could take advantage of Microsoft's digital media platform in their own services, using not only the secure WMA audio format, but also all of the compatibility with software music players and portable hardware devices that came along with it. On the back end, Microsoft was doing what it did best: Ensuring that the platform had wide availability and compatibility, making it more valuable both to the company and its partners.

There was just one problem. While Napster, BuyMusic.com, and other services were struggling to attract customers, Apple's iTunes Music Store was coming on strong. No doubt, business schools will one day study the success of iTunes and draw some interesting conclusions. But the facts as we now know them are these: Despite locking in users to its single service and the iPod portable player, despite the fact that the proprietary Protected AAC format that Apple uses for iTunes is both low-quality and completely incompatible with non-Apple products, and despite the fact that iTunes was, at first, a poorly-written application that behaved in ways unfamiliar to most Windows users, Apple was successful. No, not just successful. Super successful. Today, iTunes is the dominant online music service. And Apple's iPod is the dominant portable audio player, with an amazing cachet among consumers.

We might debate why this is so. Apple's iPods are more expensive and less feature-packed than the WMA-based competition. Songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store will not work on the 70+ portable devices that are compatible with WMA. And so on. My theory is that an iPod, unlike say Apple's Macintosh line of computers, is an affordable luxury. Though few people are willing to plunk down $2000 to $3000 for a computer (a Mac) that is basically incompatible with every other PC on the planet, spending $300 to $500 on an iPod is a bit more palatable. And because they are stunningly styled, customers feel like they're getting a luxury item. For many people, an iPod is a fashion accessory, a sign that they have "made" it and can afford the good things in life. That they are technically inferior to the WMA-based competition means little. BMW owners, for example, aren't concerned that their autobahn blazers get worse gas mileage than a more pedestrian Buick.

By the beginning of 2004, it was obvious that the market for online music services would be divided into Apple and everyone else. That means that Apple's Protected AAC format, and not WMA, would be the de facto standard for audio formats. And since that wasn't the future Microsoft had envisioned for WMA, the company began to rethink its strategy. In 2004, Microsoft made two huge steps in a bid to curtail the success of iTunes. The first was to release a new version of its Windows Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, which is used to protect songs sold by online music services. The new DRM version supports the copying of subscription content to portable devices, a business model many (myself included) feel will ultimately prove to be more viable than the a la part 99 cent downloads offered by iTunes. The second was that Microsoft decided to open its own online music service. The service, called MSN Music, is obviously the subject of this review. But the two steps are linked: Though Microsoft has created a subscription-based technology, MSN Music now eschews that for a la carte downloads only. Microsoft's decision to at least temporarily leave the subscription offerings to other services shows that the company is still sensitive to stomping all over its partners. So some ways, MSN Music is a demonstration that companies other than Apple can get the a la carte download product right.

In May 2005, Microsoft Yusuf Mehdi, the Microsoft Corporate Vice President of MSN, addressed investors from Goldman Sachs and discussed his company's plans to battle Apple in the online music services market. Apple, Mehdi acknowledged, had captured consumer excitement with iPod and iTunes advertisements that spoke of a luxury lifestyle. Microsoft's response would be to offer consumers more choice.

"Our strategy is certainly to offer a multitude of devices," he said. "There's a lot of opportunity. [iPods are] only in 4 percent of U.S. homes today, even with all the success they've had ... And so the proposition is that you can buy a number of different devices with the MSN Music service as opposed to just a single device from Apple and that will be a good choice. The other thing is, of course, we'll have a very broad selection of music. My goal is that if we don't have the broadest selection, we're tied for the broadest selection of music. We'll have the best discovery. It will work with your Windows PCs and that alone I think will give us a big enough market share that we certainly should be able to go out there and be in a nice horse race if not take the lead at some point in the future ... And again one of the nice things about us at Microsoft is we'll take a long-term view and so we will fund and we will invest to be competitive."

In late July, Mehdi provided attendees at the annual Microsoft Financial Analysts Meeting with a sneak peek at the MSN Music user interface (Figure). While its unclear how this came about, the somewhat Spartan look of MSN Music was destined to replace the user interface for all of MSN's online services, including the hugely-popular MSN.com portal. That change, I'm told, will happen early this year.

Why MSN?

One thing I was curious about was how it was that MSN got control of Microsoft's music service. After all, the company's Windows Digital Media team, along with Microsoft Research, had developed the Windows Media formats and other popular and related products, like Windows Media Player 10 (see my review), Windows Movie Maker 2 (see my review), and Photo Story 3 (see my review). Larry Grothaus, the Lead Product Manager for MSN Marketing, told me recently that MSN, as the online services business at Microsoft, was actually the logical choice.

"We had some legacy there," he said. "We purchased Mongo Music several years ago, and Microsoft made them part of the MSN Division. We also have a huge focus on entertainment, and in building out complete online experiences for consumers. But [MSN Music is part of a] cross-company effort. The Windows Digital Media guys do their piece, the Media Center folks do their piece, and we have our piece over here. We're brining it all together as a company."

One thing Grothaus said really struck a nerve. "If you look at the way Microsoft as a whole rallied around Windows as a platform, and then the Internet, the whole digital media experience is our latest rallying point." That shows you how important this service is to the company, and the level of dedication Microsoft is willing to give its digital media products, including MSN Music. In other words, this isn't a flash in the pan, and Microsoft is in it for the long haul. If that doesn't strike fear in the hearts of Microsoft's competitors, then they've already given up.

MSN Music debuts

In September 2004, Microsoft debuted the public beta of MSN Music. As I noted in my preview of the service, the beta of MSN Music was an interesting solution, offering compatibility with both Windows Media Player 10 (see my review) and Internet Explorer, giving users the choice about where they would both purchase and play music (another benefit of WMA-based services: You can choose to buy music from MSN Music, but play that music in MusicMatch, if that's your favorite player). At MSN Music, songs are offered in a variable bit rate format that runs from 160 Kbps all the way up to 256 Kbps, depending on the sonic needs of each song (Classical music, I'm told, tends to require higher bit rates to accurate capture the highest highs and the lowest lows). That makes MSN Music the highest quality WMA-compatible service out there, offering music of much higher quality than Apple's relatively paltry 128 Kbps format. And Microsoft has built some interesting discoverability features into its service, something Apple could learn from.

Still, the MSN Music preview didn't represent the full service. By mid-October 2004, the soft launch of MSN Music had transitioned into a full-blown launch of the 1.0 version of MSN Music. And since then, Microsoft has been working to improve the service steadily, something it will do continually from here on out. Here's what's changed since the MSN Music preview.

New and improved features in MSN Music

Overall, the look and feel of MSN Music hasn't changed much since the beta. Comparing the UI now to what it looked like in early September 2004, we can see a few small differences. First, if you have logged into the service using a Passport account, Microsoft calls that out by listing your email address in the service's header. When you mouse over this email address, a pop-up menu appears, giving you access to your account settings, download history, ratings, and bill (Figure). This menu provides you with a wealth of configuration options from any screen in MSN Music, which is a welcome change from the beta.

Another thing that's changed is that MSN Music added a number of exclusive bands to its roster, though some of those--like the steak and potatoes rockers AC-DC--are now available to other services. MSN Music also offers songs from over 3,000 independent artists, many of whom are exclusively available to the service.

The process of buying music, already nicely-implemented during the beta, has been improved somewhat. By default, when you click a link to purchase an album or song on MSN Music, you're prompted with a green Confirm button, which subtly replaces the original blue Buy button (Figure). When you click the Confirm button, two things happen. First, the Confirm button is replaced by a blue Purchased button. Second, a notification window appears above a new MSN Music icon in your system tray, alerting you that the music you purchased is now downloading (Figure). If you click that MSN Music icon, you can access a number of choices, including "Show My Downloads." This choice launches a new IE window that displays the download status of the songs you just purchased (Figure). The entire process is handled very nicely, and in a bit of seamless integration, you can even start playing a song, in Windows Media Player, by clicking its link from the Download Status page of MSN Music in IE.

One thing that MSN Music has done well since the beta is make it easy to find new music. This was a complaint I had about iTunes, though Apple has been steadily improving that service to make it less stark in this regard. For example, MSN Music offers a fun feature called Senior Year Hits, which helps you find music that was popular from certain years. So, for example, because I graduated from high school in 1985, I'm treated to the ignominy of such craptacular mid-80's hits as the Miami Vice Theme, Oh Sheila, and Born In the USA. Sigh. But Senior Year Hits are great for finding music from any era, of course. MSN Music also offers a new releases list, the top albums from The Billboard 200, custom In The Mix playlists, an amazing Map Of Music feature that lets you find music from particular decades and geographic locations (Figure), and various other features.

Other services offer some features that are similar to these. But when it comes to discoverability, MSN Music is without peer. The key to this success is the way MSN Music integrates with other MSN services. For example, if you're listening to MSN Radio, which comes in free and subscription-based forms ($4.99 a month or $29.99 a year for the latter), you will see a link to purchase the current song, or songs from that album (Figure). Or let's say you're searching for a musical group from the MSN Toolbar Suite (see my preview) or the new MSN Search. One of the top links on the search results page, called out with orange chevrons, directs you to that artist's page on MSN Music. There are even links right in the results page that will let you download that group's most popular songs (Figure). Likewise, the new MSN Messenger 7.0, currently in beta, has a new MSN Music tab that provides a handy way to find music directly from that IM client (Figure). That kind of interoperability between the various MSN services is just fantastic.

One interoperability feature that's unfortunately pretty buried is RSS (Real Simple Syndication) integration, which is the technology many blogs and Web sites use to let readers easily subscribe to online content. Grothaus told me that MSN Music's RSS features were originally planned as a tool for partners, so those companies could easily and automatically access the service's top albums, songs, and artists. To access this hidden feature, load http://music.msn.com/rss (Figure). Though its support for RSS is iffy right now, MSN is serious about making this technology more pervasive across its many offerings. "One thing we're adding in an upcoming version of MyMSN.com is the ability to have an RSS module," Grothaus told me. And users of MSN Spaces, MSN's new blogging tool, also currently in beta, can access this content easily as well.

The amount of music available on MSN Music has gone up dramatically in recent days. Now offering over 1 million songs for download, MSN Music adds new songs and every single day, though Tuesdays are the busiest for new releases because of the music industry release schedule. As for the site features, Grothaus said that MSN would update MSN Music every 6 to 8 weeks going forward, tweaking existing features and adding new features.

Additionally, MSN Music offers access to a growing collection of streaming (not downloadable) music videos (Figure), including U2's Vertigo, which I'm sure many people thought was exclusive to Apple. To help you sort through the growing list of MSN Music- (or as we might call it, WMA-) compatible portable audio players, there's even a Device Guide that divides the market up into sporty and tiny, travel and fashion, and video and anywhere. This compares somewhat favorably to Apple's approach, which is to simply offer you an iPod, because that's the only device they sell.

Finally, one feature MSN doesn't get enough credit for is the many ways one can access the service. As I mentioned above, you can access MSN Music directly from within Windows Media Player 10, or from Internet Explorer. But if you have a Media Center PC, you can also access the ten-foot UI version of MSN Music (Figure), which lets you purchase and preview music from your couch using a remote control. And if you have a Media Center Extender, you can even access the service with that device, perhaps from your bedroom or a family room. And not to belabor the point, but music purchased from MSN Music is playable from any WMA-compatible media player, including MusicMatch, Napster, or whatever. It's all about choice.

What's missing

Where MSN Music falls short is its lack of a subscription service. Given the attention Microsoft is getting for creating a subscription-based DRM scheme, it's somewhat odd that the company has left this feature to partners like Napster, which now offers a $15 a month service called Napster-To-Go. With Napster-To-Go, subscribers can download any of the 700,000+ tracks Napster offers and copy them to a compatible portable audio player, such as a Portable Media Center (see my review). Ultimately, subscription plans like this will save consumers tons of money, since it would cost you about $5,000 to fill up a 20 GB device with songs from an a la carte service like Apple iTunes. However, before that can happen, more devices will need to be made compatible. Those updates are coming early this year, I'm told.

Though MSN Music doesn't include a subscription service, the company isn't ruling one out for the future. My guess is that Microsoft is giving its partners time to get a leg up on this business before it jumps in. However, as an alternative, Grothaus reminded me that MSN Radio--a bargain at just $29.99 a year--is an attractive alternative to subscription services, especially for those that generally just listen to music at home, or at the computer. For example, Media Center PC users can access MSN Radio content from anywhere in the house. "Subscription is something we're looking at for down the road," he told me. "But streaming music through MSN Radio is a good alternative today. I actually use MSN Radio when I have people over to the house and it sounds great." The paid version of MSN Radio, dubbed MSN Radio Plus, offers better sound quality than the free version, has no advertisements, and includes more radio stations, he noted.

Also missing, of course, is iPod compatibility. Because Apple refuses to open up its dominant portable music player to the competition, consumers are unable to pair the best player with the best music services, and are instead forced to use iTunes and its comparatively lackluster and locked-in music format. Frankly, there isn't much Microsoft can do here. As I see it, the company has two choices: It can do nothing (what it's currently doing) or try to emulate RealNetworks in a losing strategy of reverse-engineering the iPod to be compatible with its formats. But given the icy response Apple gave RealNetworks when that company announced such a strategy, and Microsoft's historic antitrust problems, my guess is that such a tactic is not really a possibility. But being incompatible with the iPod is very much a weakness for MSN Music. WMA-compatible players are getting better all the time, and some are arguably superior to the iPod. But to the average consumer, an iPod is the gotta-have-it player. No other device maker can make such a claim.

MSN Music compared

Compared to other online music services, MSN Music comes out at or near the top, depending on your requirements. It offers a similar music selection and similar or better discovery of new music than Apple iTunes, and has vastly superior sound quality. On the other hand, unlike iTunes, MSN Music is not compatible with the iPod.

RealNetworks' RealPlayer Music Store also offers high quality music downloads (192 Kbps AAC-based), and is ostensibly compatible with the iPod. However, Apple's latest iPod software update broke that compatibility and it's unclear whether Real will be able to keep up with Apple's ever-changing compatibility requirements. If song selection and non-iPod device compatibility is important, MSN Music still comes out ahead of RealPlayer Music Store, though it's close.

Unlike iTunes and RealPlayer Music Store, MSN Music and the songs you purchase from that service can be accessed from a Media Center PC, which is hugely important if you own such a machine. At my house, we access our music and photo collections from the large TV in the den all time, thanks to a Media Center PC, so this functionality is key.

Compared to other WMA-compatible services, MSN Music also comes out ahead in most regards. Only MusicMatch Downloads can approach the quality of the music offered by MSN Music, and no other services have as large of a selection. However, Napster's subscription-based offerings are fairly unique, unless of course you don't have a compatible portable device (and right now, almost no one does). Combined with MSN Music Plus, MSN Music has most of the bases covered.

I've been asked many times which service I use. Unfortunately, I take a slightly more complicated approach to buying music than most people. Ultimately, I want all of my purchased music to be re-encoded in a non-protected format, preferably MP3, which offers the greatest compatibility with both software-based players and devices. So the quality of the original songs I purchase are of utmost importance. For this reason, services like MSN Music, MusicMatch Downloads, and RealPlayer Music Store are the most attractive to me (in that order). Generally speaking, I'll look for the albums or songs I want on those three services first, then write them to audio CDs, and re-rip them back to the PC in 160 Kbps MP3 format. I then ZIP up the original files and archive them. Lower quality services like iTunes and Napster, which both offer 128 Kbps downloads, are almost useless for this task.

However, I understand your needs will likely be quite different. So what you should assess is the viability of both the platforms and services you access. Clearly, Apple and iTunes will be around for a while, the quality of the songs notwithstanding. So that's a safe bet, assuming you don't mind being locked into that one store and will always use an iPod. However, after purchasing over 250 songs from iTunes between 2003 and early 2004, I was disappointed to discover that these songs were of such low quality that it made transcoding, or re-ripping, them a largely futile task. The resulting songs are tinny and thin sounding. So now I purchase songs from MSN Music when I can now. And if the music I want isn't available on MSN Music, I'll turn to MusicMatch or RealPlayer Music Store as alternatives. Choice is great.

It's highly likely that MSN Music, backed by Microsoft, will be around for a long time to come, and I suspect the service will continue to improve over time. My recommendation for most Windows users is to pursue a WMA-compatible device over an iPod, but if you must use an iPod, consider performing the somewhat monotonous re-ripping steps I outline above. Either way, you'll be best served by a high-quality WMA-based service. And the best of the lot, at this time, is MSN Music.

Conclusions

Though derided by some as an iTunes rip-off, MSN Music is in fact an impressive and feature-packed offering, giving Windows users the best combination of quality, selection, and choice. In contrast to Apple's lock-in strategy, MSN Music customers get high-quality digital originals and access innovative ways to discover new music. And as you find yourself in other parts of the MSN universe, you'll be amazed at the ways in which MSN Music, like MSN's other services, are integrated, providing you with fun and excellent ways for you to access the music you want. MSN Music is quintessential Microsoft: Simple and powerful at the same time, and as accessible to new users as it is to the more technically proficient. Why this service has flown under the radar so far is a mystery to me. But make no mistake, MSN Music is a winner.