Opinion: Media, play thyself

I hate it when an upgrade that was supposed to solve my problems actually winds up causing me new ones.

Judging from my mail, a lot of readers feel the same way. Now you can add a new item to the list of things that can go wrong when upgrading your system.

Reader Sherwin Levinson, a longtime member of the InfoWorld Review Board, reports that upgrading Internet Explorer 5.5 to 6.0 eliminates the ability of Microsoft Corp.'s multimedia application, Windows Media Player, to send a username-password combination that will access password-protected media on the Web.

This problem affects Version 7.0 as well as the current release, Version 9.0. The solution is simple, fortunately. When Levinson rolled back the IE 6.0 installation to IE 5.5, using the control panel's Add/Remove Software applet, Media Player immediately recovered its ability to send authentication strings. This fix worked on two Windows 2000 Pro machines and one Windows 2000 Server machine that Levinson tested for me.

This weird side effect of the IE 6.0 upgrade seems to have gone unreported because the music and motion picture industries, lacking a coherent distribution model, don't yet have large numbers of sites that offer password-protected content for a fee. Levinson ran into the problem only because he had posted a family video file in a private area of his Web site that is restricted to his relatives and friends. (Levinson is the president and CEO of consulting firm Online Service Company, www.oscusa.com.)

Still, it's important to understand what was going on in this case. It shows us what to watch for when we're rolling out other upgrades.

Media Player's inability to send username-password strings to a Web page appears to be unrelated to a similar-sounding Macintosh glitch. In that instance, Media Player 7.0 on a Mac makes you submit your username and password twice (once to satisfy the browser, then again to access the media file). Media Player 7.0 and 9.0 on Windows, by contrast, submit nothing but nuls when running under IE 6.0. Levinson verified this by logging the communications exchange, using Apache.

The problem also occurs whether or not password caching is enabled on IE 6. Media Player 7.0 forces you to cache passwords, and Media Player 9.0 isn't fixed by disabling IE's or its own caching.

A possible explanation for the glitch is that basic HTTP authentication was removed from the beta versions of both IE 6.0 and Media Player 9.0. But after negative feedback from testers, Microsoft added basic authentication back into both products. Levinson speculates that some part of IE 6.0 is providing password services to Media Player, and basic authentication support didn't quite make it back into the 6.0 release of IE.

There's nothing in Microsoft's Knowledge Base on this, and I don't know of any workaround. I'll send a certificate for a free book, CD, or DVD to the first person who sends me details that I print.

InfoWorld is a US publication produced by IDG Communications.

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