Microsoft Corp. plans to give away new software for playing music and videos on a computer, but consumers who want to convert CDs to MP3 files probably will face an extra charge.
The new version of Microsoft's Windows Media Player, like previous versions, will be able to play MP3 files but not record them. However, consumers can add the recording feature by purchasing additional software from other companies, said Jonathan Usher, group manager for Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division.
The unusual arrangement has pluses and minuses for Microsoft. On the one hand, it allows the software giant to avoid paying licensing fees to Thomson Multimedia, which charges $2.50 to $5 per program for the right to produce MP3 files. It also prods consumers to use Microsoft's free audio format, Windows Media Audio, which competes with MP3.
On the other hand, consumers who prefer to "rip" their CDs into MP3 files may reject the new Windows software in favor of free jukebox programs from MusicMatch Inc. or RealNetworks Inc. Neither company charges for MP3 recording, although Real requires users to download additional software to make high-fidelity MP3 files.
Usher said Microsoft is still providing an "incredibly compelling" experience with the new-media player, which includes advanced tools for managing MP3 files and other media. And on the recording front, he said, "I think the majority are actually very happy with the sound quality" of Windows Media Audio. Spokesmen for Real and MusicMatch said they had no plans to charge users for MP3 recording features. But software and hardware manufacturers may soon charge users for the ability to play advanced music formats that are less popular, predicted analyst P.J. McNealy of GartnerG2, a technology research and consulting firm.
"The concept of the user-installed option is part of a bigger trend we expect to see . . . until there's more clarity about the [formats] of choice from both Pressplay and MusicNet," the major record companies' online music ventures, McNealy said.
MP3 is the most popular format for songs ripped from CDs or downloaded via the Internet. Yet Windows Media Player, which Microsoft bundles with its Windows operating system, has never enabled users to create MP3 files.
Instead, it converted CDs only into Windows Media Audio files, a competing format that boasts better sound and more music per megabyte. Consumers who wanted to rip CDs into MP3s had to use software from one of Microsoft's competitors.
For its forthcoming Windows XP operating system, Microsoft has updated its media player and taken a different tack on MP3. Usher said the new player will accept "plug-ins" from third parties that let users record in the MP3 format.
Although no plug-ins will be included in Windows XP, the player will steer users to Web sites where they can download them for a fee, Usher said. He declined to identify any of the companies working on plug-ins, and he had no estimate for the fees they plan to charge.
Sound recording plug-ins will be available only for the basic MP3 format, not for other formats competing with Windows Media Audio, Usher said. Those alternatives include Thomson's new MP3Pro, which delivers MP3-quality sound in 50% smaller files, and Real's RealAudio.