RealTime IT News

Are You Not Entertained?

With all of the hoopla surrounding Microsoft Corp.'s Hailstorm initiative and its XP operating system, it's understandable how the public can forget about other aspects of the software purveyor's business. But many people forget that those plays are a year or two away (tentatively, no less) from hitting the street.

Microsoft reminded the public Wednesday that in addition to software-as-a-service platforms and operating systems, the company knows the public wants to be entertained; it launched the latest and final version of its Windows Media Audio and Video 8 encoding techology. They are both compatible with Microsoft Windows Media Player 7 and 6.4.

With this release, Microsoft seems to shrug its shoulders at the fact that it lies sandwiched in overall market share for media players between industry leader RealNetworks' RealPlayer and Apple's Quicktime. No, it's banking on (what else?) its software, to show and tell with the new video and audio app release.

As previously advertised, the company has upped the ante for audiophiles. Windows Media Audio 8 nearly triples the audio compression of the MP3 format, making it possible to store almost three times as much CD-quality music on hard drives and portable devices.

Equally as important, it has given video a boost.

Microsoft said it has succeeded in making this the near DVD-quality film content killer application with a third better audio and visual quality than version 7; Microsoft's new compression technology enables film content delivery at connection rates as low as 500 Kbps and near-CD-quality audio at 48 Kbps.

In addition to the enormous potential for consumer interest, online film and video providers ALWAYSi, CinemaNow Inc., FILMSPEED, IMAX Corp., Intertainer Inc., Kanakaris Wireless and SightSound Technologies have all pledged their support for Video 8. All told, they are releasing thousands of hours of film content using the new software. Specifically, the numbers break down to more than 18 million films distributed via Windows Media Video 8

For download-and-play uses, Windows Media Video 8 provides true variable bit rate (VBR) encoding, which eliminates the 25-second barrier of other technologies, instead averaging encoding resources over an entire feature-length film.

While those who follow the digital entertainment industry readily admit that nothing will replace the experience of going to the local theater and paying $8 (or more) to see a flick and eat popcorn for $5 a bucket, analysts do recognize the potential for strong video-on-demand growth. If VHS and DVD can take off, then why wouldn't DVD-quality movies be streamed from a set-top box to your widescreen TV, or even PC, if you so desire?

Well, for a while, technology was considerably stunted. Network capacity and technical obstacles have delayed mass deployment of such services. But in recent months, digital entertainment companies (the one's that didn't go belly-up, anyway) have begun commercial distribution of feature films over the Internet to PCs, television set-top boxes and even cinemas. So it seems audiences are ready for the convenience of having film content delivered to them when they want it.

A recent study by Forrester Research Inc. lends this notion some credence. Movie studios, theater circuits, cable companies, and technology vendors will each play a part in the development of business models that take advantage of digital technology, according to the research firm; they will also share in $6.5 billion in increased movie-industry revenues by 2006.

"The Internet will never be an important venue for the distribution of mainstream feature films," said Eric Scheirer, analyst at Forrester. "Rather, it's two other digital technologies -- digital cinema and cable-based video-on-demand -- whose rapid development will fuel strong industry growth. The transition to digital cinema is in its early stages, but by 2004 it will be on a fast track to long-term commercial viability. And cable operators are moving aggressively with the rollout of next-generation digital services."

According to the bullish Forrester study, ultimately the distributors -- the ALWAYSis, CinemaNows of this world -- could stand to profit, with Microsoft having the opportunity to piggyback on their success by gaining ground in the media player market versus Real Networks.

For Mac users, Microsoft Wednesday also unveiled Windows Media Player 7 for the Mac, which runs on iMac, Cube and G4 and features the same capabilities of the Windows Media Player for standard PCs.