Microsoft has given in to consumer pressure by announcing support for the popular, if controversial, MP3 music compression format in its audio player software for mobile devices.
The software giant had resisted support for MP3 in earlier versions of Windows Media Player, opting instead for its own Windows Media Audio file format, which it claimed offered greater protection for copyright holders against piracy.
Many record companies and artists initially resisted MP3, claiming it made it easy to copy and distribute copyrighted material illegally. But while illegal copies of almost any popular song are easy to find as MP3s, the format is also now being used by legitimate publishers.
Microsoft says the spread of legitimate MP3 users prompted its decision to include MP3 support in the Windows Media Player for Windows CE. It will also continue to support the Windows Media Audio format.
"We are encouraging content providers to use a safe and secure format. But you've got to be realistic - there's lots of content out there on the Web that has been legally authored in MP3 format and we have to respond to that and support that format," said Dilip Mistry, marketing manager at Microsoft UK.
"They walk a fine line between keeping the music industry happy and the fact that MP3 is a popular format," said senior Gartner Group analyst, Michael Gartenberg.
"I'm sure this is not going to win them any friends in the music industry, but if it boosts sales even modestly, then it will be seen as a good decision," he added.
The new version of the player will be available next month. It is included on the new Pocket PC line of Windows CE palm-sized devices announced this week and due on the shelves later this year.
According to a new report from Jupiter Communications, only three per cent of consumers will purchase digital music downloaded from the Internet by 2003.
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