Microsoft is inviting all comers to test the next version of its Windows Media Player, which has a streamlined interface and new features that better support portable devices.

A technical beta copy of Windows Media Player 10 is now available for download from Microsoft. Company representatives say they plan to use the beta to gather feedback on new features before the final release later this year.

WMP gets more portable

Windows Media Player 10 contains a new version of Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, a copy-protection technique formerly code-named Janus, that enhances the software's support for portable devices, says Jonathan Usher, director of the Windows Digital Media division at Microsoft.

The DRM technology is intended to combat piracy. However, if a portable device supports Windows Media DRM, users will have greater flexibility in storing and saving music on that device, according to Microsoft.

Essentially, the technology will enable music subscription services to offer portable downloads to subscribers who are using compliant portable devices. For example, Napster subscribers can currently download an unlimited number of DRM-protected tracks to their PCs. As long as a user remains subscribed, those tracks will play normally. Once they cancel their subscription, the files can't be played.

Current portable players have no way to check if the license for a protected track is still valid, so users aren't allowed to take tunes from their subscription service on the road. New portable players that support the new DRM scheme, such as upcoming Portable Media Centre devices, will change that by including a secure clock that can be used to check if the license for a downloaded track is still valid. If it is, the track plays; if not, it doesn't. This means music lovers will be able to fill their portable players with as many tracks as it can hold for only the monthly cost of a Napster subscription.

Other new features

The Windows Media Player 10 software also supports portable devices with improved synching operations.

Users with USB mass storage devices will be able to automatically synch media to their players in a number of intelligent ways. For example, a demonstration showed a flash player set to synch up to 230MB of the 4- and 5-star rated songs in the music library.

Also getting better synching support are devices that support a new standard called Media Transfer Protocol (MTP). It's based on the Picture Transfer Protocol, commonly used by digital cameras to communicate with a PC. Basically, MTP is a standard protocol that portable players can use to communicate with a PC and enumerate the system's capabilities. According to Microsoft, MTP support may be available as a future firmware upgrade on some existing devices.

Other improvements in Media Player 10 include a streamlined interface. Basic features like ripping, burning, and synching to devices are easier to find. The look of the window takes up much less space, and no longer has an annoying left-side panel. The design slims down much better, to the point where the window can be resized into a playback controls-only view.

Microsoft is also promising better integration with third-party music stores. The updated Windows Media Player software provides an easy-to-find menu listing stores that plug in to the player. Those stores also have more options for how they can customize their interface within the player.