Microsoft Throws Firefox a Bone

Microsoft released a new Windows Media Player (WMP) plug-in for the Firefox 2.0 open source Web browser Monday via its Port 25 blog. The official plug-in is one of several Microsoft is developing at its Port 25 Open Source Software Lab, according to the company.

“I am very proud to announce that we have released another official Microsoft plug-in,” said Hank Janssen, program manager for Port 25. “It shows another level of interoperability and eagerness in working with the community to get this released.”

Firefox is the chief competitor for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, and the Port 25 lab is busy working on several Firefox plug-ins, including one for Microsoft’s identity management technology, Windows CardSpace, announced last November.

Tuning In

Available via Port 25 as well as the Firefox add-on site, the plug-in is designed to support Windows 32-bit and 64-bit platforms, including Windows XP SP2 and Windows Vista. It is also backwards compatible with the older 6.4 Windows Media Player.

The WMP plug-in also sports a few new features, Janssen wrote. A new “robust design” addresses all of the known issues with the previous plug-in. It also now supports the WMP OCX scripting interface, enabling developers to incorporate more functionality into applications. Perhaps most significantly, WMP will now work within the Firefox browser on systems running the Windows Vista OS. Firefox does not have its own media player. Firefox users typically rely on plug-ins from Real or the Adobe Flash player to view video

Windows users have always been able to play Windows Media files from Firefox, Matt Rosoff, lead analyst for consumer products at Directions on Microsoft, told LinuxInsider. However, doing so would launch the WMP in a separate window.

“[The plug-in] simply allows the player to be embedded within the browser windows,” Rosoff noted.

Joining the Community

With its Port 25 open source lab, Microsoft has launched a bid to become a part of the open source community despite the negative reputation the software maker holds among some members. However, Microsoft faces an uphill battle as many open source advocates consider Microsoft their nemesis.

“Contrary [to] what people believe,” Janssen wrote in an earlier blog post, “I do not know of a greater Microsoft plot to take over the world and destroy Linux and OSS. If there is such a thing, we at our level are unaware of it.

“Is Microsoft competing with Linux and OSS?” Janssen continued. “You bet they are. Just like every other company is competing against other companies, people that create similar products.”

The plug-in itself, according to Colin Teubner, an analyst at Forrester Research, is not open source.

“I think most people in the open source community will see this as a pro-WMP move, not a pro-Firefox or pro open source move by Microsoft,” he told LinuxInsider.

Microsoft, Teubner speculated, has evidently decided that market dominance of WMP is not enough to drive market dominance of Internet Explorer, previously the only browser with embedded WMP. Therefore, to keep WMP as the dominant media format for the Web, where it is threatened by Adobe Flash-based video, Microsoft needs to make sure WMP is not limited to just Internet Explorer.

“We’ve seen Firefox gain a meaningful minority market share,” Teubner explained, “and Web developers now typically ensure their pages work with Firefox. Without this plug-in, these developers must eschew WMP in favor of Adobe Flash Player-based video or RealMedia.”

In the Glow of SilverLight

The move might be related to Microsoft’s announcement Monday of Silverlight, its answer to Adobe Flash, said Directions on Microsoft’s Rosoff. Silverlight is intended to enable Web developers to create cross-platform, cross-browser and interactive applications.

“One of the interesting aspects of Silverlight is that it will allow developers to embed Windows Media videos into these applications,” Rosoff explained. “This is very similar to how Flash is used by YouTube today. But the experience might not have worked very well on Firefox if the browser launched a separate Media Player window every time users came across a Windows Media Video file.

“This plug-in addresses the problem,” he added.

Whether or not the release was related Silverlight, it shows that Microsoft’s development team is serious about cross-browser compatibility, Rosoff stated. “In other words, it’s more important for Microsoft to promote its Web development platform — even if it requires supporting other browsers — than it is to promote IE over other browsers.”

Other groups within Microsoft, according to Rosoff, have not been as conscientious about supporting multiple browsers. In particular, many of the software maker’s online services, such as Windows Live and Office Live, were launched with full IE compatibility first, with support for other browsers coming later.

“If Microsoft really wants to be taken seriously as an Internet player, it should ensure that new online services are cross-browser at launch,” he concluded.

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