Microsoft has made a U-turn on its decision not to support the MP3 format in Windows XP.
Two add-on programs for the flagship operating system will provide full support for MP3 and DVD playback.
All beta releases of Windows XP available since June have not included support for MP3, for reasons including Microsoft's stance on copy protection.
The MP3 format contains no safeguards to protect the copyright of the artists, a situation which spawned controversial file swapping communities such as Napster and Gnutella.
Microsoft's own answer to MP3, Windows Media Audio (WMA), makes use of a digital certificate system to protect copyright.
There is also some speculation that Microsoft's earlier decision to drop MP3 was a bid to push its own WMA technology, which is effectively in direct competition.
The company drew flack during beta testing over the low-quality results obtained when ripping MP3s under Windows XP.
Microsoft would end up paying a licence fee if it opted to include MP3 too. Thompson Multimedia, the developer of MP3, charges around $7.50 for every device the MP3 codec is used on.
But now Microsoft has said that it is working with three developers, CyberLink, InterVideo and Ravisent, on add-on packs to provide support for MP3 as well as DVD playback.
The MP3 Creation Pack and DVD Decoder Pack will be available, for an as yet undisclosed sum, when Windows XP ships in October.
Users will have to pay a price for the pleasure of playing their MP3 files in XP, incidentally making the fully integrated Windows Media Player, which plays WMA tracks only, more attractive.
The announcement has met with mixed reactions from users who seem to be fuelling rumours that Microsoft is deliberately crippling MP3 quality on XP to gain support for WMA.
"I'd be willing to bet that WMA sounds better than anything else in that package too. It shouldn't, and compared to other encoders dumping out the other formats, it won't," said one user on the Geeknews.net forum.
But another said: "Personally I believe that MS got nothing to lose from including the MP3 and DVD capabilities in the O/S. On the other hand it has a lot to gain which would be a mistake to neglect."
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