Microsoft improves signal processing, Web broadcasting and file management
In the war to own the computer-streaming market, Microsoft's Windows Media 9 was released to beta Sept. 4.
The upgrade includes a new streaming server, an improved encoder, a sophisticated and improved player, new partner offerings, mobile device support and a new software development kit (SDK) as well as multichannel audio (up to 7.1), resolution-independent video (limited only by the computer) and patented video smoothing for tweening low-frame-rate video.
"The Player is free of fees and ads and will remain so," said David Patten, general manager of Microsoft's Media Division. In contrast, RealNetworks charges up to $120 a year for the more advanced version of its RealOne Player and supports it with various ads. Apple also charges for select features of the Pro version of its QuickTime Player.
THE NEW TV
According to Microsoft, the upgrade will allow users with broadband connections to effectively replace traditional TV broadcast technologies with rich-media viewing.
Amir Majidimehr, general manager of the Digital Media Division and manager of the codec group, said Microsoft's ability to operate outside of the constraints of MPEG committees as a primary reason it can create more efficient codecs. Although MPEG-4 has received much attention recently, Majidimehr said it has issues with processor loading and bandwidth efficiency. MPEG-4 is supported by 9 Series as well as RealPlayer and QuickTime.
9 Series does not directly support MP3 or DVD file formats; these require third-party plug-ins, as did previous Microsoft Players.
The advanced features only operate on Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows XP, though the codec and player will operate on Windows 98SE or later. Without XP, users are able to view 9 Series (via a codec download) but will not have access to Fast Start, the impressive video-smoothing (frame-interpolation) feature, or automatic reconnects. In addition, the server only runs on the upcoming Windows .Net Enterprise Server platform. In contrast, RealNetwork's new server, dubbed Helix, claims to be universal and runs on 11 operating systems and will stream all major media formats.
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Fast Play video started in less than a second following clicks on the Fast-enabled links. Fast required a 9 Series player under XP and a 9 Series server.
Microsoft claims compression breakthroughs over prior versions. The Media 9 server also offers more extensive and flexible control of streaming and includes remote monitoring and management.
Along with Fast Start are Fast Cache, Fast Recovery and Fast Reconnect, which reconnect failed connections automatically without any intervention by the user.
The rewritten streaming server supports advertising with features such as playback locking to effectively prevent a user from skipping or fast-forwarding flagged video segments. Server-side playlists make full management available at the streaming server. Cookies are supported, so a fine-tuned advertising experience can be supported.
The player also supports HD video, timecode, and vari-speed playback with pitch correction, allowing time-compressed viewing, according to Geoff Harris, another Microsoft product manager.
Intelligent (automated) media and playlist management with automatic priority setting also comes as a part of the player. In addition, media on a user's hard drive can be automatically indexed and identified, and the metadata can be updated via Internet service offerings, Harris said.
One of the most impressive new player features (likely never to hit traditional TV) is video-smoothing and scaling. Video-smoothing impressively compensates for low-frame-rate video using the playback processor to create missing frames from the codec's data. In the demonstration, this made low-frame-rate video look like high-frame-rate video.
The player also supports audio crossfades, level compensation for making levels more consistent and integrated CD capture and recording.
The encoder has professional features such as nine-pin device control to aid in automated content capturing. It also supports improved quick setups, improved source switching, up to eight channels of audio, integrated screen capture, EDL, resolution-independent video, interlaced video and nonsquare pixels for playback to TVs and set-top boxes. Two-pass encoding allows improved quality from available bandwidth.
Bill Hensler, chief engineer for After Effects of Adobe, said his company will integrate 9 Series into upcoming releases of Adobe Premiere and After Effects.
New digital rights management features supporting various models of media control and monitoring did not seem to be as refined as other offerings in the product and presents the greatest challenge in this world of moving targets.
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