RealTime IT News

Windows Media 9 Comes Alive in L.A

After months of teasing and dropping hints around its digital media strategy, Microsoft will finally showcase a beta of Windows Media 9 Series, a media player that looks to turn PCs into TVs.

When Bill Gates officially lifts the wraps off the software formerly known as "Corona" Wednesday in Los Angeles, it will signal the next stage in the battle between Microsoft and RealNetworks to a share of the eyes and wallets of PC users worldwide.

Early versions of the WM9 media player have already been leaked on the Web and there is buzz that the software would include the ability to copy DVD movies to disk. While the DVD copying capabilities were spotted in early builds of the WM9 player, there is no official word on what is included in the final release.

Gates is expected to take the stage Wednesday morning to tell the gathering that Windows Media 9 Series had won support from consumer electronics firms and technology partners looking to jump on the Microsoft bandwagon.

With a revamped WM9 player promising to virtually purge buffering delays when streams are launched, Microsoft is throwing down the gauntlet to RealNetworks that this is a genuine two-horse race in the space.

Real has shrugged off Microsoft's hogging of the spotlight and launched an ambitious project of its own, the Helix software that pipes audio and video in a range of formats -- including Microsoft's Windows Media.

Judging from early-version leaks of the beta, the new Microsoft WM9 player doesn't include a major facelift on the surface but in addition to DVD copying, it offered improved encoders and superior plug-in management, according to testers who used the beta.

One major change is Microsoft's inclusion of a "Services" tab that pushes premium content from third-party suppliers, a strong hint that WM9 would soon mirror the rival RealOne subscription services.

Microsoft's "Services" tab on the menu bar points to a page for users to sign up for digital media packages. There are strong hints that the Microsoft-backed paid-download music service pressplay will find a home on the player.

The software giant has put a "Send a File" button on the player to signal explicit support for the concept of digital file-sharing. Users can send digital music or video files. A new media library supporting Microsoft's XML-based Windows Media Metadata and "Smart Playlists" have also been added to let users view and sort music and videos.

While those cosmetic changes are all consumer-driven, Microsoft's major focus will be on securing hardware partners for the software. And, by launching the event in Los Angeles, the obvious target is Hollywood and the movie studios looking for new distribution outlets for films.

Already, Web-based movie-on demand firm Intertainer Inc. has put eight movies in the new Microsoft format and Microsoft also announced the U.K.-based Tandberg Television would partner to offer broadcast software supporting Windows Media 9 Series for the telecom and broadcast industries.

Tandberg Television is developing a dedicated, real-time hardware-based encoding platform for Windows Media, based on Windows Media Audio and Video 9 Series. The two companies are collaborating at a number of levels, including engineering, sales and marketing. "With the transition from analog to digital accelerating, the broadcast and broadband worlds are increasingly driven by a common goal: to deliver the best quality at the lowest cost," Microsoft said.

"This new cooperation between Tandberg Television and Microsoft will give operators the flexibility to use Windows Media 9 Series either as the basis for an end-to-end IP-based broadcast and video on demand (VOD) network, or enhancing existing DVB- and MPEG-based broadcast networks with higher quality at lower data rates, compared with current standards-based compression technologies," the companies said in a statement.

Microsoft has also inked a 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 would 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.

Microsoft might have given up ground to Real in the digital media software race but industry watchers believe the Richmond-based firm will make inroads in the enterprise space where many companies are more inclined to adopt the company's all-encompassing software because of a comfort level with the platform.