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Microsoft Wows Crowd with New Windows Media

NEW YORK -- Microsoft Corp. Tuesday wasted little time making some noise at the Streaming Media East 2001 show when it demonstrated its new Windows Media platform, a product whose key striking feature is that it kills the "infamous buffer" snag that irks streaming media lovers.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant aired its new wares at a high-tech gala in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, where Fall Internet World 2001 and Streaming Media East 2001 are being held concurrently this week.

In a keynote address geared to hype the revamped platform, code-named "Corona," Will Poole, Microsoft's vice president of the Windows Digital Media Division, discussed how Windows media will kickstart the Web services market. While Poole's talk of the futuristic ability to have digital media such as new music releases streamed from company servers to .NET-enabled servers powering home PCs (and, believe it or not, streamed to .NET-served cars), was interesting, it was the demonstrations of more current, practical solutions that caught the audience's collective eye.

Poole, together with the division's general manager, Dave Fester, showed how "Corona" improves streaming media delivery vis-à-vis Fast Stream, a feature that delivers ready-to-play-at-the-push-of-a-button, always-on streaming. Poole called the new digital media platform an incarnation of "third-generation streaming media" technology, where unpleasant pauses in play are eradicated.

The cornerstone of the FastStream presentation was Microsoft's partnership with FYE, the giant entertainment retailer for which the software firm is powering its entertainment kiosks. But unlike sampler kiosks you'll find at other retailers where a limited amount of tracks are offered, FYE uses Microsoft's servers to give listeners samples of every track available in the store.

Fester wowed the audience by showing how users can select music, sample it and make a purchase right at the kiosk with Microsoft .NET's heavily-debated PassPort payment system. In an extension of this, Fester then showed how a consumer can use his or her home PC to get additional "if you liked this, you may enjoy this" recommendations by visiting FYE's Web site, creating a MyFYE account to be apprised of related music. He also showed how someone can instant message a track to a friend using .NET Alerts and Windows Messenger.

And, while this presentation was sure to intrigue music-loving consumers, Poole said his company is also working hard to push its third-generation streaming works for the enterprise. He cited a case where a salesman can go on the road to close a huge deal and benefit from receiving up-to-date analyses from the company's intranet, which would be powered, of course, by Microsoft's .NET servers. The idea is that the salesman can get fresh data to close the sale.

To that enterprise end, Poole also showed how Radio Shack is using Microsoft's Windows Media to train its employees.

To that end, the success of so-called third-generation streaming is contingent on adoption of broadband access, which, according to a study released Tuesday by Nielsen/ Netratings, may not be a problem. The survey found that the at-home broadband audience surpassed 21 million in November, growing 90 percent year-over-year. Broadband fueled 94 percent growth in the streaming audience, reaching 40.7 million surfers. But most importantly, the research firm sees dollar signs in those figure.

"Last year, broadband surfers spent 67 percent more dollars online each month than narrowband surfers, said T.S. Kelly, director and principal analyst, NetRatings. "The continued healthy growth of the broadband population bodes well for ecommerce."

In a later presentation, Poole and Fester demonstrated how "Corona" makes delivery of home-theater-like audio and video quality to broadband PC users possible with the help of brand new audio and video codecs, including the new WMA Professional - the first codec to enable Web-based delivery of 5.1 multi-channel surround sound.

But what drives the new Windows Media platform? A product from the .NET well, no less. Microsoft said it created the release of a new streaming media engine, currently slated for beta 3 testing, to power Corona. It's called Windows Media Services in Windows .NET Server.

Pending offerings from the Corona platform include new versions of Windows Media Player, Windows Media audio and video codecs, and Windows Media Encoder, as well as a new Windows Media Software Development Kit -- all scheduled to be available for beta testing early next year.

Microsoft was also pleased to announce semiconductor allies for its latest Windows media endeavor; DVD chip manufacturers Cirrus Logic, ESS Technology, LSI Logic, STMicroelectronics and Zoran will support Windows Media Audio and Video technology This means that within the next year, DVD players containing these chips will enable consumers to play back 22 hours of music from a single CD.

In digital media rival news, RealNetworks Inc. Monday announced its full support of the MPEG-4 standard, which will be included in the next release of the firm's RealSystem. MPEG-4, the logical step up from MP3 technology, comprises audio and video technologies that condense large digital files into smaller ones that can be easily transferred via the Web.

RealNetworks' embrace of MPEG-4 is a huge win for the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG), as Sun Microsystems Inc. has already announced its support for the standard, which is seen as a technology that will eventually eclipse MP3. Along with electronics device maker Philips, Sun will promote and develop MPEG-4 technology for broadband and wireless markets.

"RealNetworks support of MPEG4 is another milestone in the company's history of pioneering work with streaming media technologies," said Ann Wettersten, vice president, Wireless and Content Delivery, Sun Microsystems. "Sun and RealNetworks close collaboration on scalable, standards based streaming platforms will provide significant benefits to our mutual customers, including content providers, wireless carriers, content delivery networks, and the consumer."