July 14, 2002 9:01 PM PDT

Microsoft to unveil media format's name

Microsoft on Monday will announce that its crowning digital media technology, code-named Corona, officially will be called Windows Media 9 Series.

Windows Media 9 is seen as an important technology advancement, as Microsoft jockeys to curb the threat open-standards MPEG-4 poses to the company's proprietary digital media formats. Microsoft sees the success of Windows Media 9 as crucial to selling Windows software for servers and embedded devices, say analysts.

"Microsoft's overarching strategy for Windows Media services is selling Windows Server or Windows XP Embedded," said Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff. This explains why the company provides tools for hosting or streaming Windows Media file formats only from Windows 2000 Server or the forthcoming .Net Server, he added.

The new technology also will compete against products from Apple Computer and RealNetworks. Both companies deliver players, authoring and server software for other operating systems, not just Windows.

Microsoft on Monday also will reveal that Pioneer Electronics plans to support Windows Media file formats in its upcoming Digital Network Entertainment (DNE) line of products. Pioneer will use Window Media file formats in the first DNE device, DigitaLibrary, for delivering secure digital content. Consumers would retrieve digital media in Corona file formats from select Internet sites using the entertainment device.

But Pioneer's device and a shipping version of Windows Media 9 authoring tools and players may be a long way from market. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is slated to launch the first public beta, or testing, version of Windows Media at a Sept. 4 event. The late-summer beta could mean Microsoft will miss getting a final version of the technology out in time for support on devices sold during the important holiday-buying season.

"Microsoft is making a lot of noises about its upcoming technology Corona and the video quality," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "This is like most Microsoft spins--they've barely gotten to the T-shirt phase, let alone shipping a product."

Microsoft will follow the Sept 4. beta launch event in Los Angeles with a two-day technical summit on the new Windows Media 9 Player, streaming server, encoder and software development kit.

Forging for formats
Microsoft has been marshalling to gain widespread device support for Windows Media formats. The strategy, in part, is a way of spurring consumer adoption in the face of content provider resistance, say analysts. The software titan estimates that 30 million devices will support Windows Media file formats by the end of the year.

"Microsoft's strategy is to get format ubiquity because once they're the most popular format, customers will demand that format," Rosoff said. "Then content companies, producers and distributors will have to buy the Windows tools necessary to create it."

More importantly, the way Pioneer will support new Corona audio and video codecs could be crucial to another part of Microsoft's strategy, particularly if more device manufacturers follow along. Pioneer will be using Microsoft's digital-rights management (DRM) built into Windows Media 9 file formats to prevent illegal copying of downloaded audio and video content.

"It comes back to part of their strategy we saw with the Windows audio codec," said Gartner analyst Paul-Jon McNealy. "Microsoft's strategy was to give it away--to give it away along every step of the distribution chain--and get support built up for it so it became the de facto choice for record labels when they ready to do stuff online. It's part of their strategy to become the de facto strategy for DRM, which we don't have one today."

Wooing device manufacturers to use Windows Media file formats is no guarantee of ubiquity, particularly given the popularity of MP3 for digital music and MPEG-2 for digital video.

"When you look at (Windows Media Audio) format in the portable music space, WMA is still a very distant second," Gartenberg said. "Consumers are buying these devices to put MP3s on, not to put WMA files on."

But winning device manufacturers and eventually content providers to Microsoft's digital-rights management technology could give Windows Media file formats a long-term advantage, analysts say.

"They have a patent for a DRM operating system," Rosoff said. "They can tout a more coherent and consistent DRM story to content owners. That can really convince the content owners that encoding their files in Windows Media is the right thing to do. That could go a long way to spreading the Windows Media file format."

The downside: "Unlike content hosted or served by Real and Apple (technologies), you will be locked into Windows," Rosoff added.

This difference could be important as Apple, Real, some content creators and many device manufacturers begin to look at MPEG-4 as the successor to MP3 and MPEG-4. Rather than fully supporting the open-source digital media technology, Microsoft is touting Corona's smaller file sizes, instant-on capabilities and other features also found in MPEG-4.

Unbundling the player
Microsoft is taking a different approach to Windows Media 9 than version 8. The software giant stopped releasing standalone players with Windows Media 7, offering version 8 only as part of Windows XP. But Windows Media 9 players will be available for other versions of Windows, not just XP.

"The problem with Corona is they have to give you a new player, because Corona needs a new player," said META Group analyst Steve Kleynhans. "It has to be able to support some of the pre-fetching of data, new algorithms they're using and changes to the codecs."

Kleynhans expects the XP version of the Windows Media 9 Player to take advantage of unique digital media features built into the operating system. Microsoft cited these enhancements as the major reason the version 8 player could not be released apart from the operating system.

"With the media player Corona, you'll be able to download it for any version of Windows," he said. "But for Windows XP, they'll give you a media player Corona plus, so to speak. It will go down into XP and extend all those cool features up."

But Microsoft is limiting its support for Corona technologies, at least for the time being, to Windows.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company would not provide an executive to discuss Windows Media 9, but Jonathan Usher, director of the Windows Digital Media Division at Microsoft, laid out the company's Corona in an earlier interview.

Usher made it clear Corona would be a Windows-only affair. "Our focus right now for the Corona time frame is Windows XP and other versions of Windows," Usher said. That means no immediate Corona players, if ever, for the Macintosh or Sun Microsystems Solaris, two operating systems previously supported by Microsoft.

"We'll focus on other platforms like the Mac primarily to ensure Windows Media content playback," Usher said. "There will not be a separate Corona player in that time frame." Usher said he "can't comment" about whether Microsoft would release a Corona player for the Mac or Solaris.

 

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