A year and a half ago, Microsoft released Windows Media Player 9 Series (WMP 9, codenamed Corona), a dramatically enhanced all-in-one media player and jukebox that outperformed virtually all of the competition. But like all software products, WMP 9 isn't without faults. As I noted in my review, WMP 9 is too complicated, with a myriad of unidentifiable or vague buttons (quick: Try to explain how a newcomer could possibly know the difference between "Media Guide" and "Media Library"). Compared the Spartan simplicity--and dare I say it, elegance--of Apple's iTunes, WMP 9 looks downright unwieldy.

Granted, WMP 9 does a lot more than iTunes, the latter of which is just a music organizer and player (and front-end to Apple's iTunes Music Store). WMP 9, however, organizes both videos and music, provides Internet-based content for the currently-playing song if requested, plays DVD movies, and integrates with a host of online services, including online music stores and movie rental outlets like MovieLink and CinemaNow. It's hard to create a tool that is both versatile and simple, and WMP 9 suffers as a result.

As with virtually all current products at Microsoft, software engineers and designers have been working on the next version of Windows Media Player for some time now, though the original plan was to ship that product as part of Longhorn, the next major Windows version. Thanks to never-ending delays, however, Longhorn won't ship until at least 2006, so Microsoft has elected to skip a previously planned WMP 9.1 release and ship another major Windows Media Player update this year. Dubbed Windows Media Player 10 (WMP 10, codenamed Crescent), this version sports a much simpler user interface (Figure 1) and a number of other important features. Let's take a look at this product, currently in beta, and see how it stacks up. Note that WMP 10 is not feature-complete, however, and the current Technical Beta release includes only a subset of the capabilities of the final version, which should ship this fall.

Simpler new user interface

Fans of iTunes might be confused for thinking this product is a melding of both iTunes and WMP 9: WMP 10 still sports a rounded, colorized WMP 9-like "chrome," or shell, but its been dramatically simplified. The menu bar, previously enabled via a mouse-over by default, is now just off by default, which better retains the clean lines of the player. (You can enable the menu bar using a weird new button on the top of the player, situated to the left of the window control buttons).

The left-mounted taskbar from WMP 9, with its often inscrutable options, has been moved to a top-mounted toolbar, and simplified with single-word options like "Rip" and "Burn"; these are much more quickly grokked than the similar looking "Copy from CD" and "Copy to CD" options from WMP 9.

And the bevy of bizarre little buttons from WMP 9 are missing here, their functionality relegated to right-click menu choices that power users will be comfortable with; arguably, only power users were using these features anyway. Microsoft lead product manager David Caulton told me, however, that no features from WMP 9 are missing in WMP 10; if you could do it then, you can do it now. However, some lesser-used functionality is now a bit more difficult to find, since few people needed those features, though many asked for a simpler player.

Despite an overt effort to remove UI from the main player window, some new features are visually obvious. When you connect to, open, or play media, for example, that status is displayed directly in the player chrome, near the bottom of the player. And as media plays back, the status display rotates between various meta data. For example, playing back a song displays the song title, artist name, album name, and bit-rate (Figure 2, though it's unclear why the latter would be important to most people).

In the current Technical Beta release, the UI inside the chrome is basically identical to that of WMP 9. However, I'm told that this will change before the final release, and various WMP 10 demos I received this spring showed off a dramatically nicer-looking UI, with bigger and cleaner fonts, and nicer colors. Stay tuned.

Entering any of the player's task areas--Now Playing, Library, Rip, Burn, Sync or Guide--also betrays the player's complicated WMP 9 heritage. For example, clicking Now Playing reveals three almost identical looking little buttons, which I'd like to see cleaned up before the final release (for the record, they're "Now Playing options," "Maximize the Video and Visualizations Pane," and "View full screen," which you can only discover by taking the time to mouse over them. Phooey. Furthermore, the middle button is more accurate named "Hide playlist," which would be a far simpler title). Since it's a work in progress, I'll Microsoft a bit of slack here, but clearly the same attention that went into the surrounding chrome needs to happen for the various player modes as well.

Living in the Library

That said, most users probably won't need to access most of the player modes any way. That's because Microsoft is engineering this product so that people can "Live in the Library," a slogan that actually resulted from user feedback. And if I can beat the iTunes comparison to death, that means that WMP 10 will actually work more like iTunes, in that you can perform many tasks, like CD ripping and burning, from within the Media Library, and won't need to visit the Rip and Burn modes, respectively, to do so (unless you want to). You can also synchronize media to portable devices from the Library, though I'll look at that a bit later.

Support for new media types

Live in the Library isn't just about organizing music, for starters. With this release, WMP can now organize virtual any kind of digital media content you have on your system, including music, photos, videos, and, if you have a Media Center TV, recorded TV shows. That means you can do things like rate recorded TV shows and photos, as you can already rate videos and music in WMP 9. You can also do things like place photos in a playlist (and create Auto Playlists based on ratings and other criteria), and "play" them from WMP 10 if you want. But you should know that this capability is really just designed for synchronization with compatible portable devices, and isn't really full featured. For example, you can't use WMP 10 to set up a photo slideshow that has a music playlist playing over it.

The rationale behind this move will escape most average users, but it goes something like this: WMP 10 sits at the core of Microsoft's upcoming "Windows XP Reloaded" marketing campaign, which will try to reignite consumer excitement in Windows XP this fall by touting a number of consumer-oriented improvements to the base Windows platform. Other components of XP Reloaded, like Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 ("Symphony"), the Media Center Extenders, and Portable Media Centers, will build on, and require, WMP 10. So this product needs to include certain new features in order to support those other products.

Always-on playlist

In any event, in addition to aggregating a surprising array of digital media types, the Media Library has changed in other ways. The "Now Playing" playlist is always available, so users will understand what content is queued up, regardless of where they are. In previous WMP versions, this was a bit confusing, because the playlist supported both simple playback and queuing capabilities, the latter of which added new content to the end of the Now Playing list. WMP 9's shell integration made this even more confusing: When you right-click on a song, you see options for "Play" and "Queue it up." In WMP 10, the latter option has been renamed to "Add to Now Playing List," a more obvious choice.

Conceptually, the multi-paned Media Library is still somewhat more complicated than iTunes, however, and a comparison that explains why might be worthwhile. Let's say I have a Media Library full of music, but I'd like to play just a single album (The Corrs "Borrowed Heaven" for this example). In WMP 10, you can launch the player, navigate to Library, and then playback the album in one of three ways. First, you could navigate through the Library's tree view control, on the left side of the player, ala WMP 9, a process I find confusing and irritating, because of the horizontal space requirements of a tree view: As you expand the tree, each subsequent node is indented further and further to the right, usually jumping beyond the pane's available display space, forcing you to scroll right to see the current location. When you arrive at the album, you can double-click its title; this action clears the Now Playing playlist and replaces it with the contents of the album you selected, and starts playback. Second, you could manually clear the contents of the Now Playing playlist by selecting all of the songs in the list, right-clicking, and choosing "Remove from List". Then you could drag and drop the songs you want from the main Media Library pane, after you scrolled down to the correct location, often a laborious task for users with large music libraries.

Or, you could choose option number three. The one that works just like iTunes.

Apple iTunes supplies a simple, non-columnar view to your music, sorted by artist and then album. To filter this view, or create an on-the-fly playlist, you can simply type in an artist name, album name, or whatever in the prominent search button (in this example, we'd type "Borrowed Heaven"). Then, press the play button. Simple. Interestingly, you can do this in WMP 10, as well, though, the default Media Library is a cluttered, three pane mess (Figure 3).

In Microsoft's view of the world, the simplicity of iTunes masks the fact that it isn't very full featured, or doesn't have the wide range of functionality that's available in WMP. Fair enough. But the needs of most users are also fairly simple, and iTunes seems to satisfy many people. WMP 10 is simpler than its predecessor, but it's still not simple enough, in my view. There's gotta be a way to hide all that clutter.

Welcome to the Digital Media Mall: New, integrated online music store experiences

Though few people seem to be aware of it, WMP 9 supported a number of integrated music and video services, including Napster. But WMP 10 takes this integration to an all-new level, and Microsoft hopes that the extensibility of the WMP 10 platform makes the application more attractive to both service vendors and customers. The most obvious visual change is that online services that choose to integrate into WMP 10 get their own customizable portion of the WMP 10 toolbar, with an option to use up to three buttons.

Today, during the beta, there are three services testing the waters--CinemaNow, MusicNow, and Napster--and Microsoft tells me that more will come on board as WMP 10's late summer release gets closer. Each of these services will likely have its own external client, but will also provide a plug-in that loads directly into WMP 10, so you won't need to load a separate application to buy music or rent digital videos. When you put WMP 10 into, say, Napster mode, the rightmost portion of the WMP 10 toolbar changes to reflect that you're interacting with Napster; in this case, you get new "Music" and "Radio" buttons, while CinemaNow offers a single "Movie" choice.

The customizations don't stop there, however. In addition to a unique UI, each service can also optionally customize the media player's Info Center view (Figure 4), music shop, and album and movie information sections, which both keeps users interacting with the host service's unique functionality and provides users with a far more integrated experience. In other words, if you're a paying Napster subscriber, it's likely that you're going to want Napster-related information as you move around WMP 10.

Portable devices and Auto Sync

Architecturally, the biggest change in WMP 10 is its new support for portable devices. Granted, WMP 9 offered superb compatibility in this area, but WMP 10 takes it to a whole new level thanks to its support of a new version of Window Media DRM (digital rights management) technology, which allows for subscribed music and video content to be copied to compatible portable devices and accessed away from your PC. This exciting development will likely lead to the third era of interactive online digital media services, where the first era was illegal free services like the original Napster and Kazaa, and the second was started by the success of Apple's iTunes Music Store, which offered paid, legal downloads of singles and albums.

In the third era, services like Napster will be able to let subscribers download any of the songs in their libraries to portable devices, where they can be accessed offline, and away from the computer. Let's say that Napster offers a version of its service in the near future that offers this capability--a good guess, since the company has pretty much admitted so, but has not yet discussed pricing. For a certain amount of money--let's say $10 to $15 a month, subscribers will be able to access any of Napster's 700,000 songs at any time, while they're at their computer, just as they can do today. But they'll additionally be able to download any of those 700,000 songs to a portable device, like a Portable Media Center or portable digital audio device. So if you have a 30 GB Dell DJ, for example, you can fill it up with 30 GB of subscribed (or purchased) content (or a combination of the two). As long as your subscription remains valid, those songs will play on the portable device.

Two obvious thoughts come to mind. First, this is going to dramatically change the ways in which people access music. Instead of purchasing an expensive music collection at 99 cents a song--or a whopping several thousand dollars to fill an iPod-like device--you can simply subscribe to a service and listen to any music you'd like, at any time, from virtually anywhere on earth, assuming you have a compatible device. Second, there have been complaints (largely from the Apple crowd, which is aping Apple CEO Steve Jobs' misguided opinion) that subscription services won't work. This is hugely untrue. Today, we subscribe to services from cable companies, magazines, video rental outlets like Netflix, satellite radios, and so on, so it's a proven model. And rather than be stuck with a collection of outdated songs you may or may not like 10 years from now, you can simply swap out your entire collection for a new set of music at any time. It's an unbelievable opportunity.

Most exciting, some services, like Napster, will offer customers unique capabilities. For example, Napster subscribers can currently view the music libraries of friends and see what music their Napster-using buddies are listening to. So, if you wanted to, you could download the exact list of music your friends are enjoying, download it to a portable device, and listen to it while commuting, jogging, or whatever. And you wouldn't have to purchase a single song, because it's all covered by your Napster subscription. That's good stuff, and I'm eager to try out this feature.

The reality of today

Of course, this cool functionality is mostly not available today, largely because the portable devices and services you need to make it work aren't ready yet. Conversely, many of today's existing portable devices--like the first generation Dell DJ I use--will be given firmware updates that bring them up to speed, so it's likely you won't have to upgrade to a new device if you're a digital media early adopter. But the coolest experience will definitely be provided to Portable Media Center owners, who will be able to synchronize their device with their favorite PC-based digital photos, videos, Recorded TV shows (if they have a Media Center PC), and music. And again, that content can be unprotected, purchased, or subscription-based. It will all work.

Today, however, there's precious little you can do to test most of this, so stay tuned. Remember, it's still a tech beta.

Auto Sync

You might be wondering how you're going to synchronize all that data with a portable device. Today, your choices for synchronizing, say, music and a portable device (even if you're using an iPod and iTunes) are pretty limited. You can either manually copy content over to the device, or you can let the media player automatically synchronize the content between the two, an operation that works only when your media library is small enough to fit on the portable device.

In WMP 10, Microsoft will introduce a new feature called Auto Sync that will add a third option to the list. With Auto Sync, WMP 10 will determine which content it should synchronize with your portable device, using a fairly impressive set of criteria. Under the most basic Auto Sync mode, WMP 10 is simply set up to detect when the portable device is connected, and then automatically synchronize the type of content you want. This could be your most listened-to songs, your most highly rated content, or whatever. If your portable device isn't capacious enough to load all of that content, WMP 10 will default to transferring only a mix of your very highest rated and most recent content.

Naturally, you can customize this as you'd like, and because WMP 10 is savvy to non-musical content, it also works with photos, videos, and other content types, and works with subscription services.

Other changes

In addition to the aforementioned major changes, WMP 10 also includes the following minor upgrades over WMP 9. For example, while WMP 9 included support for skins to get a small, Winamp-style player view, none of them were particularly well done. So WMP 10 offers a unique new resizing capability that lets you display just the upper portion of the player and the controls. It looks a little messed up if you enable the title bar, but its likely going to please a lot of people. WMP 10 also better supports the increasingly common widescreen displays found on desktop and laptop systems, whether in normal or full-screen mode. And finally, WMP 10 better matches the black border space around DVD movies and other content in full screen mode, so you don't get two different bands of black, or black-like color, around the movie frame; now, the surrounding color is consistent and less distracting.

Final thoughts

WMP 10 is still very much a beta, with many bugs, crashes, and missing features, and Microsoft doesn't yet recommend it for most users, which makes sense, especially when you consider that the only way to uninstall the product is to use System Restore to roll back your system to an earlier date. But if you're adventurous, or simply must have the latest and greatest, the WMP 10 technical beta is an interesting look at the future direction of Windows Media Player. I'm particularly interested in seeing how the subscription services features work out, especially in tandem with a Portable Media Player. I'll have more information about that exciting combination as soon as they're available.