Microsoft Friday will release a near-final version of its Windows Media Player 9 software and announce the availability of a new version of its digital home-movie-making application, which uses the latest Windows Media Video file format.The company will post online Release Candidate 1 of its newest media player, said Michael Aldridge, lead product manager with the Windows digital media group at Microsoft. It should feature performance improvements over earlier beta versions that have been available for testing since September.The company expects to gather feedback from testers over the next month but wouldn't commit to a final release date."We have expected to release it by the end of this year, but it really depends on what we need to do to meet the quality bar," Aldridge said. Friday's release is "a good indicator that we're making very good progress," he said.Windows Media Player 9 will be available in two versions: one for Windows XP and a less feature-filled make for earlier Windows operating systems, the company said.Microsoft's player competes against those from Apple and RealNetworks. RealNetworks this week announced the availability of the source code for a free version of its RealOne player. With it, developers can build their own media players for Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems.Separately, Microsoft's digital media software group Friday made available Beta Version 2.0 of Windows MovieMaker, an application designed exclusively for Windows XP users for editing and creating digital movies.With it, users can import digital video in the Audio Video Interleaved (AVI) file format, standard on most digital video cameras, in addition to MPEG. Video can then be edited down and mixed with audio and text. Version 2.0 of the software will also for the first time allow users to save movies in AVI or Windows Media Video 9, Microsoft's proprietary file format.Microsoft said one of the benefits of using its proprietary format is that it can retain image quality while compressing video into a small file that can be e-mailed or streamed over the Internet. For example, 45 minutes of video saved in AVI would just about fill up a 10G byte hard disk. That same amount of storage space could hold 15 hours of data saved in the Windows Media Video 9 format with comparable quality, Aldridge said.However, Windows Media Video 9 files can be played back only on Windows Media Player 9, which currently is available only in test versions.New features in Windows MovieMaker 2.0 include built-in video CD burning, an improved navigation bar and the addition of wizards that takes users through the movie-making process in a series of mouse clicks."The consumer challenge today is ... they have no idea what the first step is when making a movie; they have no idea what the process is," Aldridge said.MovieMaker 2.0 also features a new technology developed by Microsoft Research, called AutoMovie. With it, a user can chose any number of video files, audio files and text and have that automatically edited down and compiled into a final movie. The process involves three steps where a user can chose how they want the movie to be compiled, and it takes about 15 minutes to generate, according to Microsoft."It analyzes the music you pick, the video clips you pick, and then it matches the crescendos and dynamics of the music to the video," Aldridge said. The AutoMovie feature adds transitions, slow motion and video effects based on its analysis, he said.\n\nThe Windows MovieMaker 2.0 beta version is available for download.