RealTime IT News

Can the New Windows Media Deliver on the Hype?

Microsoft has not yet released a beta version of its heavily-hyped Windows Media 9 (formerly 'Corona') platform, but tongues are already wagging about its advanced capabilities.

The revamped WM9 player, promising to virtually purge buffering delays when streams are launched and take full advantage of a user's high-speed connection, is being touted as the best thing to happen to the streaming media industry. But despite the PR shimmying from the software giant, executives from rival RealNetworks insist the market is still wide open.

"It's unclear what it (WM9) is. It sounds like an incremental update to what they've been doing for some time. It's interesting in that Microsoft first announced Corona a year ago and they've been talking about this magical thing for over a year and they've never even shipped a beta product," RealNetworks VP of strategic relations Steve Banfield told internetnews.

"While they are busy announcing that they'll announce something next month, we are focused on delivering custom solutions and marketing our own services. We've done all kinds of things in the same time period during which Microsoft has been talking about this forthcoming launch," Banfield added.

Banfield's bristling may be understandable. Microsoft has spent the past few months teasing everyone about the wild capabilities of Corona, but a beta product has not yet been launched. And, even though demos offer an interesting peek at video clip playback and the content creation and distribution capabilities, Real's Banfield is unimpressed. The sniping is indicative of the firms' competitive natures.

"Our RealOne player already includes TurboPlay, which takes advantage of a high-speed connection and loads clips without buffering timeouts or choppy playback," Banfield said. "I find it comical that Microsoft is touting they'll eliminate buffering when that's something we're already doing. Vaporware is the only word I can use to accurately describe what they are doing."

But, with the competing WMP software gaining ground on RealPlayer's dominance, analysts believe the battle is well and truly on for command of the digital media market, both on the consumer and enterprise end.

Gartner analyst Rob Batchelder in intrigued by the two-horse race in the space but warned against dismissing RealNetworks as a legitimate contender.

"The (Microsoft v Real) race is really interesting. Both companies are ultimately trying to blanket the digital media space with competing end-to-end digital media infrastructure," Batchelder told .

"Don't be so quick to count RealNetworks out. Real is very competitive. In certain markets, real is kicking Microsoft's butt. I think Microsoft will also be at a disadvantage because of the distrust factor. They are setting up WM9 as an overarching infrastructure but it is a horse race. Microsoft has certain advantages but also some disadvantages," Batchelder added.

He said the WM9 technology had tremendous potential but warned that media companies would be very skeptical of Microsoft's tactic to weave their way into the distribution pipe. "But, on the on the enterprise end, it will offer some very solid technology. But, it still doesn't knock Real out of the picture, not by any stretch of the imagination," Batchelder said.

Pioneer embraces WM9

Already, Microsoft has inked a high-profile deal with electronics maker Pioneer to put the WM9 series in Pioneer's Digital Network Entertainment (DNE) products, the first time a home theatre device will include support for Windows Media video.

Pioneer's DigitaLibrary DNE products, which will hit stores later this year, will allow users to access Windows Media content directly from selected online content providers, and shuttle digital audio and video content from PCs to devices throughout the home.

"Windows Media 9 Series innovations in audio and video compression offer great new opportunities for our customers to link their PCs to their home theaters and to have access to their digital music, photos and video anywhere throughout the home," said Bob Niimi, senior VP at Pioneer. "Pioneer chose to support Windows Media 9 Series audio and video technology because it clearly demonstrates a shared commitment to create and offer innovative, high-quality home entertainment experiences to consumers."

Pioneer said it would also support Windows Media digital rights management (DRM) technology and its use for secured music and video playback and Windows Media Video for both streamed and downloadable video and for home movies created using Windows Movie Maker in Windows XP.

"Support for Windows Media 9 Series audio and video technology means users will get a further 20 percent quality improvement on this already industry-leading audio and video compression. Pioneer selected National Semiconductor Corp.'s Geode Processor to offer this breakthrough support for Windows Media Video, as well as Audio on a chip, a first in the consumer electronics industry," the company said.

With deals like this, Microsoft is clearly shaping up WM9 as another option in the race to deliver portability -- and accessibility -- to downloaded digital content.

A consumer electronics maker warms to WM9...