The online music cosmos just got bigger today with the official release of Microsoft's MSN Music, a behemoth of a virtual music store, where users will soon be able to browse a library of more than 1 million tracks and purchase them in an à la carte fashion. According to a Microsoft spokeperson, the store will launch with 620,000 tracks, but this number will increase daily; users probably won't see 1 million tracks for several weeks. Following in the footsteps of established stores and services such as Apple iTunes Music Store and Napster, the unfashionably late MSN Music has a number of features going for it. First, it will soon boast a catalog that's significantly larger than Napster and Musicmatch's, comprising the biggest source for legal WMA downloads. In comparison, Apple's iTunes Music Store currently has more than 1 million tracks available in AAC. Second, most tracks are encoded at the higher-than-average 160Kbps, and selected tracks have bit rates of 256Kbps. Last but not least, MSN Music is both browser-based and accessible within Microsoft's own Windows Media Player 10.0, so it has a distinct advantage on both the operating system and brand-recognition levels. In preview mode since September 1, MSN Music is now available in 17 countries, making it "the world's largest network of legal online music services." The store is also integrated with the new Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and includes several features not available in the preview. Outside of updating to Windows Media Player 10.0, installation is a nonissue. MSN Music can be conveniently accessed within Windows Media Player 10.0 (Windows XP users only) by clicking the Online Stores area or by entering music.msn.com in Internet Explorer; other browsers such as Firefox are not supported. Both interfaces are virtually the same, but the use of WMP 10.0 lends the experience a more integrated feel, as with Apple's iTunes. One of MSN Music's distinct advantages is the fact that you don't need to download and install a plug-in in order to browse for music as you would for Napster, Musicmatch, and the other music stores available within WMP 10.0.
The MSN Music interface can be described as simple, uncluttered, and mildly bland. The top of the mostly white home page features a search box, a genre-selection drop-down menu, a promotions area, a small thumbnail of an album cover, and links to the 10 most downloaded albums. Below, you'll find Top Downloaded Songs, Top Downloaded Artists, Top Downloaded Metal Songs (we presume the genre rotates for this list), and an Editor's Picks section. At the very top, you can navigate to the other major areas of MSN Music: Radio, Movies, and TV. Overall, this layout makes for efficient browsing, but it lacks the richness and color of stores such as the in-your-face Napster or even the simple-yet-superstreamlined iTunes Music Store.
Fortunately, when you dive into genres, albums, or other pages, you'll get a similar and consistent interface. For example, selecting an album takes you to a page with a larger album cover and a listing of the tracks. Here, you can listen to a 30-second preview, purchase a track, and even rate a song. Most songs include a rating by others in the MSN Music community, and your personal ratings show up in the View My Ratings link accessible from the My Account page. In addition, a descriptive editorial review with various links appears below all the tracks, and you'll never get lost, thanks to the "trail of breadcrumbs" links located near the top of the page. Links to well-organized Amazon-style user reviews and to related music are also available on this page.
Home pages for specific genres are packed with more information and album art, along with top songs, new releases, "starter kits" that introduce newbies to canonized artists, and other modular lists.
When you purchase a track, you'll be asked to sign in with your MSN .Net Passport user account if you're not already logged in, then a green Confirm button will light up, along with a Cancel button. Word of warning: You'll be giving up a wealth of personal information to Microsoft when you sign up for a .Net Passport (if you have a Hotmail account, you're already signed up). If this is your first time purchasing from MSN Music, you'll have to enter credit card info and "sign" an agreement--all typical. Here comes the unexpected part: You'll then need to download a small piece of software called the MSN Music Assistant (it takes up to 20 seconds on broadband), which aids the downloading of music and sticks your WMA files into your My Music folder. In some cases, this software upgrades the DRM components on your computer. Finally, you'll be asked if you want to automatically download (as with Amazon's one-click process) or be asked for a confirmation. Once you've purchased your first track, subsequent purchases are literally one click away, and you can monitor your progress via the Download Status link. Downloads, by the way, were lightning-fast over broadband. As with most other major stores, individual tracks cost 99 cents, but albums range in price more or less from $7.92 to $9.90, with many albums selling for the odd price of $8.91. One of MSN Music's biggest selling points is its expansive collection, as evidenced by not only the 1-million-plus-track library (620,000 tracks available to date) but in the depth of independent labels and esoteric genres such as jazz and classical. MSN Music features home pages for 20 genres, including World, Electronica, Sound Tracks, Country, Folk, New Age, and others. You'll also find many exclusive artists such as AC/DC and Madonna and tracks that aren't available in other stores. However, in many cases, there's a catch: Madonna's "Borderline," for example, can be downloaded only as part of the entire Madonna album.
One of MSN Music's nicest features is the search function, which does not include options such as artist, track, and so on. Instead, when you type in a keyword, all search results are divided into distinct Artist, Album, Song, and Radio areas. This gives users a nicely categorized search-engine-like overview of everything that's available. Speaking of radio, MSN Music offers more than 1,000 free radio stations broken down into genres, even Fan Favorites and Recently Played. Perhaps the most interesting element is the availability of "like" local stations, which are searchable by town and include actual top 20 playlists. We also like that fact that you can purchase tracks that are being streamed, a feature found in Napster and Musicmatch as well. It's certainly a much richer experience than iTunes' one-dimensional streaming-only radio. For $4.99 a month or $29.99 annually, you can join MSN Radio Plus, which offers ad-free and higher-quality streams with more stations, including MLB.com baseball feeds.
While Napster and Musicmatch provide 128Kbps WMA downloads, MSN Music ups the ante with 160Kbps for most of its catalog. Certain types of music, particularly classical and jazz, can be available for 256Kbps. In the brave new world of digital music, you get more bang for your buck with a higher bit rate, even though many users won't be able to tell the difference in sound quality. In comparison, iTunes offers 128Kbps AAC tracks, while RealPlayer Music Store offers an industry-leading 192Kbps AAC across the board.
MSN Music operates with a fairly progressive set of file-ownership rights. You can authorize up to five computers to play your purchased music, and you have the option to deauthorize music from any computer. If you're using Windows Media Player 9.0 or earlier, however, you won't be able to reauthorize a computer after it's been deauthorized. You may also burn a specific playlist to a CD up to seven times, and you get a limitless number of transfers to portable devices. Related to the latter right is the sheer number of portable players that are compatible with MSN Music and protected WMAs in general. The iPod is the only player that will play iTunes AAC tracks, but a long list of players will be compatible with MSN Music as well as other WMA stores such as Napster and Musicmatch.
Additional features with the official launch include Hot Cities By Decade, where users may "take musical journeys through time and around the United States" by selecting a decade and city from an interactive list and map. Users can even participate in Listening Booth and Listening Parties, which are essentially previews of unreleased or not-yet-available albums. Music videos will also be an integral part of the user experience.
MSN Music will be accessible within the Media Center Edition 2005 interface, allowing users to browse, preview, and purchase music from the comfort of their couches. Microsoft hasn't announced plans to introduce a subscription-based service such as Napster and Musicmatch. However, we expect to see one in the near future, as Windows Media Player 10.0 is the perfect foundation for this type of service, given its latest DRM and its pioneering ability to manage the transfer of subscription content to portable devices. Perhaps the most compelling quality of MSN Music from a Windows Media Player perspective is that within the media jukebox, you can access different stores and services, which ultimately gives the user many choices. MSN Music includes an accessible and well-organized customer service section with helpful FAQs for both the player's features and user accounts. There is even a user feedback form within the customer service area. There are also links to informative pages regarding Windows Media Player 10.0 and its features, both related and nonrelated to MSN Music.