Microsoft's and MTV's URGE challenge iTunes with radio, custom playlists

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

New York (NY) - While Apple successfully built itself into a brand trusted by the digital music community - some of whom are just now discovering it also makes computers - Microsoft has had trouble making headway in this new market, especially with a brand known for its straight-laced, business-oriented image. But partnered with MTV - perhaps the strongest brand in modern music - Microsoft is taking a chance that its technology, coupled with MTV's appeal, will help it build a true contender to iTunes, which by all accounts has a commanding lead in the licensed music download market.

Today's unveiling of MTV's URGE music service, along with the latest beta of Microsoft's Windows Media Player 11, is designed to give music customers incentive to convert their Windows computers into Microsoft DRM machines. Just as iTunes has become a prominent feature of Apple's QuickTime media player, URGE will be front-and-center in Microsoft's new WMP. MSN Music will still be available, though it's likely that service will be played down significantly as MSN's focus changes to more Google-like services.

Windows Media Player 11 with the front page for URGE music service

Windows Media Player 11 with the front page for URGE music service

The URGE service changes the music browsing process, leading the user more by the hand, and serving as a much more active marketing tool. While Microsoft is excited about users being able to browse through music titles by their associated album covers, MTV is making use of this opportunity to leverage its rich back-catalog of editorial content, such as historical articles, music reviews, video clips...and, very likely, some advertising along the way. MTV is part of Viacom, whose heritage is built on advertising and brand licensing, and might not even be in this venture were it not for the possibility of opening up a new avenue for ads.

One of URGE's key features which MTV is hyping is custom-made playlists - programmed selections of musical tracks, many of which will be associated with MTV Networks programs (which also include VH-1 and Country Music Television). Many will remember the era when MTV on basic cable played so-called "music videos," which were generally four-minute movies edited in such a way to feature a popular piece of music with its artist or band - all without the aid of pointless sitcoms, reality shows, or mindless cartoons. Only fleeting wisps of this type of programming remain today; but in the bygone era of MTV's founding, video disc jockeys or "VJs" were hired to provide continuity, as well as provide a little information about the artist, his history, and where he might be playing in concert in the near future. Conceivably, URGE's custom-made playlists could potentially resurrect this type of programming from the golden age of television.

Another interesting component of URGE extends the custom playlist concept one step further, with live, streaming radio channels, covering all the major popular genres, plus VH-1 Classic and CMT Radio. MTV promises these channels will be professionally programmed, though it hasn't explicitly stated they will be commercial-free.

For its own part, the new WMP 11 has actually been radically simplified, with key features and menu selections more normalized and standardized than in WMP 9 and 10 - which often took creative license with regard to where to place its functionality. Here, playlists and libraries now take a familiar slot along the left side navigation pane, and libraries themselves becoming automatically subcategorized by artist or genre, with a style borrowed from the Explorer program in Windows XP. The skin uses the "Arrow" style that you'll see much more of in the upcoming Windows Vista.

Attempts to set up WMP 11 with URGE today did not meet with a high degree of success on our systems. On two attempts, the setup process triggered a download of WMP 10 from Microsoft, not WMP 11. Finally, with a lot of tweaking, we were able to install WMP 11 with URGE on the seventh attempt.

While it's fun to think of two major forces battling out for control of the music industry, it's worth noting that both sides in this battle aren't exactly on the same playing field. Apple's advantage with iTunes is not only its huge installed base, but the iPod, whose market share continues to flirt with the 80% level, by some analysts' estimates. iTunes is a vehicle for the gathering and delivery of music for the iPod, while URGE is not, and will never be. Its value proposition is that collectors may seek an alternative to iPod if it can provide a deeper, richer experience.

That's going to be a hard case to make, even with MTV's rich library of editorial and video content. One of the keys to iPod's success has been the fact that the device itself enables its music to be portable, which includes the capability to burn downloaded songs to a CD. On the other hand, the URGE service will make use of WMP's rights management features, which will effectively disable downloaded tunes from being played on any kind of device that doesn't support the so-called "PlaysForSure" standard.

On Monday, Microsoft's promotional literature for WMP included pictures of a prototype PlaysForSure stereo component, which would serve as a kind of bridge between the computer where the music is housed, and the home stereo which would pump it through the speakers. Today, Microsoft described the objective of this kind of linking as to "ensure seamless and intuitive syncing and burning of rights-managed content." A cool-looking device that links two virtual lead weights together might not be as appealing as a cool-looking device you can take with you while you're out jogging. So while URGE will have a certain amount of brand appeal, MTV may only be capable of blasting its message out into the alleyways and back channels that Apple hasn't already claimed for itself.