Microsoft as Underdog

It isn’t often that Microsoft Corp. plays the role of the underdog, but in terms of streaming media on the Internet they have hardly been a force. Perhaps that’s changing.

In recent weeks Microsoft has plunged into the murky waters of streaming media and emerged as an interesting and viable competitor to long-established RealNetworks. Microsoft is claiming it has a product that can deliver CD quality sound over the Internet in files half the size of the popular MP3 format.

Streaming media is an approach to delivering multimedia to networked desktops so the client isn't required to have a complete copy of the multimedia file before the presentation begins. It works by buffering packets at the client side and using the buffer as a way to prevent interruptions in the multimedia flow. So far streaming media content development and delivery has been dominated by a single company: RealNetworks.

RealNetworks' success is largely due to the availability of a free browser plug-in, called RealPlayer, that provides remarkable audio quality at even low connection speeds. For users with slightly higher available bit rates, the player can deliver video clips over the Internet. The company has a set of content authoring tools that make it possible to develop and host streaming multimedia. As a result many companies turn to these tools when hosting conferences on the Internet or delivering a corporate radio show on an intranet. For some time RealNetworks has had this market to itself. No competitor had products good enough -- or pockets deep enough -- to compete effectively with the established market leader. Until now.

In April, Microsoft released Windows Media Technologies 4.0, a complete revamping of the lackluster NetShow. NetShow never emerged as a viable product line. It tended to trail the market rather than lead. While the media player was free, it failed to provide support for a broad range of platforms. Windows Media Technologies 4.0 includes a new format that allows audio to be either streamed to a client or downloaded for later playing. The new format competes not only with RealNetworks’ streaming multimedia formats but also with MP3, the industry standard for transferring CD-quality digital sound on the Web.

MP3 has worried many because its success has brought the potential for copyright abuse. There is no embedded copyright protection scheme built into MP3. Since the technology is based purely on digital compression of the audio signal, remarkable savings in file size and bandwidth are possible. Those savings, and the high quality of the playback, have made MP3 a juggernaut on the Internet. Still, the potential for copyright infringement has sent the recording industry into a frenzy trying to find a format that has the advantages of copyright protection with the user friendliness of MP3.

In fact, the recording industry has convened a consortium of technology experts to develop and evangelize a protocol to replace MP3. Before the consortium could make a recommendation, RealNetworks and IBM proposed a multimedia copyright protection scheme of their own.

Microsoft is attempting to position its new digital audio format as an advance over MP3. Like IBM and RealNetworks, Microsoft has included a tool that allows a content publisher to establish the business rules for content licensing, including copying and incremental, or pay-per-performance, viewing. Microsoft also claims its new format provides better audio quality in packages half the size of MP3. While there hasn’t been much time to validate Microsoft’s claim about the format’s properties, it’s obvious that the new format is proprietary. There is little cross-platform compatibility with Microsoft’s new codec and, what’s potentially worse, there seems to be a difficulty for third-party developers to develop their own MS Audio components.

It seems unlikely that the Internet will suddenly embrace the new format as a replacement for MP3. In fact, the hullabaloo over the format's properties misses the point. The real news is that the new tools provide some welcome alternatives in the area of streaming media. Nearly 85 percent of all streaming content is produced and delivered using RealNetworks’ streaming technologies. Instead of being a hated market giant in this arena, Microsoft enters streaming media as an upstart -- certainly a refreshing change in roles for a company that spends too much of its time defending it status as a market giant.

MS Audio will never be an "MP3-killer," but that’s okay -- we don’t need it for that. What we need are better tools for authoring and delivering streaming multimedia on the Internet. That’s where Microsoft Audio may make a difference. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at