Microsoft Announces Next-Generation Multimedia Solution

Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com) recently took the wraps off Windows Media Technologies 7, an Internet broadband-ready platform designed for the creation, distribution, and playback of broadcast-quality digital media. While its initial appeal will be in the consumer marketplace, many enterprise organizations are eyeing the technology for internal training and videoconferencing capabilities.

Windows Media Services, the server-side component, is designed to run with Windows, and will provide up to 9,000 concurrent narrow-band streams of video from a single server and up to 2,400 broadband Internet streams at 100 Kb per second.

The client-side component of Windows Media Technologies is Windows Media Player, a multimedia player for Windows-based PCs. But while it packs a host of new features and boasts support for a number of new technologies, Windows Media Player 7.0 lacks support for at least two established industry standards -- audio and video CODECs from RealNetworks Inc. (www.realnetworks.com) and the QuickTime 4.0 digital multimedia standard from Apple Computer Inc. (www.apple.com).

Not coincidentally, RealNetworks and Apple are significant competitors in the market for Windows-based multimedia solutions. Most industry watchers agree that Microsoft's Windows Media platform currently lags behind competing solutions from both RealNetworks and Apple in terms of overall market acceptance. Moreover, Apple upped the ante in early April when it introduced version 1.0 of its open source Darwin project to developers. While originally conceived of as a means to lure developers into creating solutions for the QuickTime platform, one byproduct of Apple's Darwin project has been the porting of its QuickTime multimedia streaming software to Windows NT. This means Apple now competes directly against Microsoft -- which distributes an integrated Windows Media streaming solution in every copy of its Windows 2000 Server and Windows 2000 Advanced Server -- on the software giant's own platforms.

Dorsey & Whitney LLP, an international law firm, runs Windows Media technology on Windows 2000 as an intranet-based broadcasting system designed to deliver in-house training and real-time meetings to employees around the world. One of the most prevalent applications is training sessions, which are archived for on-demand access. Conferences and other events are also available for viewing at any time, says William Schiefelbein, CIO of Dorsey & Whitney. "Users who run an event and want to broadcast it, simply check the box on our conference room resources e-mail form in Outlook."

ACT Teleconferencing Inc. (www.acttel.com) announced it is offering Windows Media as its preferred audio and video format to deliver its teleconference services. Windows Media technology's "video latency is lower [than other players], and the audio and video clarity is improved," says Emily Magrish, vice president of marketing for ACT. ACT plans to cross-sell streaming events which will be outsourced to streaming technology partners.

Another feature is screen-capture technology that is designed to capture and stream computer motion without any loss in image quality or screen content. This is aimed at delivering streamed software demonstrations and training via the Internet or across corporate networks. "One of our biggest challenges in creating online training is to fully re-create over the Internet the exact end-user experience a software application, without forcing the trainee to install the full application," says AL Lippa, Internet/e-commerce manager at J.D. Edwards & Co. (www.jdedwards.com). Until now, capturing computer screen motion for software demonstrations and training had done with tools that are ill-suited for streaming media, resulting in large files that are impossible to stream across networks.

Windows Media Technologies 7, including Windows Media Player, Windows Media Format, Windows Media Rights Manager, Windows Media Encoder and Windows Media SDK is now available in beta form. For its part, Windows Media Player 7.0 is designed to help shore up Microsoft's distant third place position in the marketplace for client-side multimedia solutions.

Among other highlights, the software giant's flagship multimedia player features a new jukebox capability that lets users record CDs to a number of different formats. Windows Media Player 7.0 also sports a redesigned user interface.

As far as performance is concerned, Microsoft says Windows Media Player 7.0 is an ideal solution when deployed client-side in broadband streaming efforts. According to the software giant, its updated multimedia solution will deliver a frame rate of over 60 frames per second over a standard cable modem -- 256 Kbps and faster -- connection. As a point of reference, frame rate standard for the motion picture industry is 30 frames per second.