Windows Media Player 11

I was playing with the Windows XP installation (via Bootcamp) on my Mac the other night, and Windows Update offered Windows Media Player 11 as an update.


As with just about all Windows applications, this required an update to install (for those interested, this is because of the mis-design and thorough brokenness of Windows’ DSO loading mechanism: Once a given DLL has been loaded, it’s virtually impossible to then remove it from memory. This means that anything that updates a library which has already been loaded for any reason demands that the system be restarted before the updated code is loaded).


The new Media Player looks like a (non-Aero) Vista application with a shiny black look to it. The upshot of this is that, in common with all recent releases of WMP, it throws away the usual style and layout conventions. It has a Vista-style close button, but rather than being highlighted when the window is active (as in Vista – which has been rightly criticised for using this colouring as the only way to determine the focussed window), it is instead highlighted when hovered over… which really makes no sense from either OS’ world-view.


Another strange inconsistency is that whilst the designers obivously really want to be rid of “legacy” elements such as menu-bars, they haven’t been able to quite bring themselves to do so… so what’s left is a strange compromise where menus are available if activated from the keyboard, but are otherwise not shown – unless you choose to have them displayed… from the menu(?).


As an aside, here’s a suggestion for the geekiest drinking game ever: Starting from the top of the File menu, take a shot of yer chosen poison every time there’s an “Options” menu item. Seriously, even Oliver Reed would have passed out before you get half-way through.


The new Media Player does look very nice, and finally appears to have learnt how to play DVDs. The greatest missed opportunity is probably the integration, or lack thereof:

If you look at the stores available in the United States, then there’s at least 15 of them including music, radio, films, etc. If you then look at what we’re offered in the United Kingdom, what do we get? Three stores. Two of which are are merely redirections to the featured proivders websites, with no further integration at all. The crazy thing about this is that many of the US options are large companies with multi-national presences, including in the UK.

The worst seems to be the “Packard Bell Music Station”, which I glanced at just for the sake of completeness. On trying to view, it immediately insists that you install a DRM update ActiveX – which I declined to do. However, having only gone this far – a single click from the provider-menu, the site installed a new menu item at the top of the context menu for the player window, named “Return to store”. Clicking on this takes you straight back to the DRM-download page, regardless of what store you were viewing, or whether you’re even interested in Packard Bell or not. There was no notification that this would be installed, and no way that I can see to remove it.

Additionally, once a given clip had finished playing, Media Player remained on a blank screen – it made no attempt to return to the store the clip had come from, and had no obvious navigation controls. Breadcrumbs, in a situation such as this, are a virtual necessity…


If mere sites are able to ride roughshod over peoples’ own choice in this way then I can’t see it even approaching the populatity of iTunes, obviously the model for its evolution. Whilst not unfinished, it is a product that feels schizophrenic – the developers haven’t been able to decide how they want it to proceed, and so have thrown everything in there: It’s definitely not XP-style, but it’s not quite Vista either; most functionality is hidden in menus or the absurdly extensive Options dialog, but they try their best to hide the presence of this.


Ultimately, though, the killer feature that Media Player lacks is its own online store. Microsoft have created and dumped a music store of their own on numerous occasions – and I think that the debacle of the “Plays for sure” programme being abandoned so soon after inception has probably evaporated all patience and support from third-parties.


Media Player appears very much to be a solution desperately seeking a problem… I guess the only question that remains is whether the Zune will sell in sufficient numbers to make it the killer problem 😉

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