...The release is the latest and perhaps the most formidable attempt so far to chip away at the dominance of Apple Computer Inc.'s ubiquitous and iconic iPod digital music player.
For the first time, Microsoft has led a coordinated effort so that the Windows Media Player, the Urge music store and the latest MP3 players by iRiver, Samsung and Creative Zen were largely designed together.
In effect, Microsoft and team are trying to mimic iPod and iTunes so that all the pieces fit together better and make it easier to use.
"Apple's model of a complete ecosystem -- the content and devices all working together harmoniously -- is the key to their success," said Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies. "What Microsoft is trying to do is create something similar."
…"It's significantly better" than iTunes, said Geoff Harris, product unit manager of Windows Media Player. "The player experience (such as its library management system) is just better than some of the stuff iTunes does."
…Like iTunes, Urge will let customers buy songs for 99 cents apiece.
In addition, Urge, in the style of Yahoo, RealNetworks' Rhapsody and Napster, will also offer a monthly and annual subscription plan.
Subscribers get to download as many songs as they want under the plan, as well as transfer the music to as many as five computers and devices. By contrast, iTunes only lets customers purchase individual songs and albums, Microsoft said.
"The Urge service, being a subscription service and well programmed by MTV, is a different music experience," Harris said. "The iTunes experience is pretty ephemeral. You go to iTunes because you know you want to buy a song or an album.
"Because (Urge) is a subscription 'all-you-can eat' and MTV-rich program, you'll stay a lot longer and you'll discover a lot of new music that you didn't know you liked."
MTV hopes to capitalize on its popularity and reputation as a source for music. For instance, it has compiled celebrity and other themed playlists for subscribers to try and explore.
…Despite the iPod's popularity, the online music industry is still small, with an opportunity to reach a large, untapped audience, said Jason Hirschhorn, chief digital officer of MTV Networks.
"We think, over time, there is going to be a significant market, and it's not going to be a monopoly," Hirschhorn said. "We'd rather open up the market than take away a small percentage of the market."
As part of the joint effort, iRiver sent a team of engineers to Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters as it designed its latest device, the iRiver Clix.
"It's been clear there's been a disconnect (between applications and devices) outside of the iPod system. That's certainly been the challenge of going head-to-head against the iPod," said Jonathan Sasse, president of iRiver America.
"With this launch, (the devices) were designed to work nicely together ... Consumers are always looking for a better deal and a better device, and I think in many ways this is superior to what the iPod is offering."