Microsoft yesterday discussed the new features it's putting inside a future version of Windows Media that it hopes will let it supplant Apple's lead in the digital music format wars.

Microsoft wants to topple Apple's market lead in order to ensure its technologies account for a larger slice of this brand-new of digital music distribution market. In future it wants a positive land-grab of the emerging movie download market.

The new version of Windows Media was code-named Janus when in development, and introduces subscription service friendly elements to Microsoft's media software.

Janus lets users play material – such as music or movies – that they rent on portable devices. A subscriber to a music subscription service, for example, would be able to download music they rent but do not own to their own portable device. Only Janus-enabled devices will be compatible.

Subscribers will be able to use the music or other content for as long as they remain subscribers, but will need to periodically reconnect their devices to their computers and get online to renew their rights. Industry insiders posit that services will offer access to unlimited media for $20+ per month using Janus.

Subscriptions don't match need
Speaking to analysts last week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs rejected the thesis of Microsoft's digital music market share increase plans, at least as far as music's concerned: "Subscription services are just not succeeding; consumers want to own their own music," he said.

"Purchasing and owning music is a very ingrained thing," he said, "and I think that is why subscription services have failed," he added. Music industry insiders are also concerned that such services will further cannibalize CD sales, he warned.

Amir Majidimehr, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division said: "The next generation of Windows Media DRM breaks new ground for music and video services so they can offer consumers more choices and an even better experience when buying, renting or previewing premium content."

OD2 CEO Charles Grimsdale called the new technology a "very exciting opportunity for the digital music industry."

Beware the content cannibals
There's divided opinion. RealNetworks vice president of music services Sean Ryan said: "There's a lot of hype and talk about subscription downloads for portable devices. Our views on this are that it will be important in the long term, but not in 2004."

Though Microsoft confirmed several companies that have already agreed to use its new technology, including AOL, Walt Disney, Napster and OD2, a glance at the list of supporters confirms it lacks ontent providers, instead reading as a who's-who of technology companies that work with entertainment ones to offer content from other people.

Jobs last week predicted that content providers may not want to follow the subscriptions path, which threatens to redefine content pricing: "Here's the deal. Microsoft does not own the content, and the content owners do not think it's such a good idea. They do not want to license their content through a subscription model where it can be carried on portable players for maybe ten dollars a month. We speak to these people, and that's what they tell us.

"We can invent all the technology in the world, but it's no use unless people use it, and people won't use it if the music's not there."

With the music industry so strongly focused on reversing CD sales decline, content providers may see such services as simply "siphoning away" the most active CD buyers.

A leading record label executive told Cnet: "It would be very attractive if it expanded the market, but anything that cannibalizes the market isn't as attractive. No one knows yet."