Microsoft Advances Windows Media with 'Corona'

One week after RealNetworks announced the release of RealOne, Microsoft has fired its latest shot to dominate digital media on the Web and beyond. Microsoft's next generation Windows Media Platform, code-named Corona, takes aim at Real by offering a slew of enhanced capabilities. Technology dubbed Fast Stream is positioned to offer an "instant on" streaming experience capable of pushing Dolby 5.1 sound to the desktops of listeners. Another announcement set for Tuesday is news of the adoption of Windows Media by leading DVD manufacturers, deeply embedded into their players.

Just as RealNetworks controlled the spotlight at Streaming Media West earlier this year, Microsoft expects to steal the show on Tuesday when it unveils Corona at Streaming Media East, previewing two new Windows Media codecs that will enter beta testing early next year. Windows Media Audio Professional will be the first codec to deliver 5.1 channel audio with full resolution 24bit/96kHz sampling via the Web. Microsoft also claims its new Windows Media Video codec improves efficiency by 20 percent and provides HDTV-like quality video at half the file size of a DVD.

Perhaps most useful to broadband users, the new Windows Media formats will eliminate the need for buffering delays, optimizing the stream for instant playback using Fast Stream.

Corona will offer server-side playlists to allow content providers to dynamically update streams, such as inserting ads in real time. Additionally aiding developers will be a new .NET-centric plug-in model for embedding digital media into applications. Microsoft hopes to establish itself as the de facto standard when it comes to building a business model around streaming media.

Along with today's announcement, Microsoft will release to MSDN subscribers a beta version of Windows Media Services for Windows .NET Server, also currently in beta. The company is heralding its new digital media server as "the most powerful streaming server available today," touting "double the scalability of the previous version." New beta versions of Windows Media Player, Encoder, and Software Development Kit are slated for release early next year.

If it is to dethrone RealNetworks as streaming media king, Microsoft must promote adoption among content providers - an area in which Real currently dominates. But critics have already begun to dismiss Microsoft's Corona as marketing hype. "They are advertising bug fixes as new features and glitzing it up with so much hype and cash as to attempt to woo more people away from competing technologies," one developer told BetaNews.

Instant-on streaming, which is accomplished using TCP to buffer dynamically based on a client's connection speed, is nothing new according to AOL Nullsoft's resident streaming expert Stephen Loomis. "SHOUTcast has been doing this for over a year and a half," Loomis explained. Apache, the most widely deployed Web server, has utilized this technology even longer.

In addition, Corona's improved video quality and encoding times will face stiff competition from MPEG-4, an open standard that has garnered much backing from wireless carriers. Real today announced its support for MPEG-4, joining Apple and a number of other technology firms in their quest to defragment the market. Even chip giant Intel has reportedly been helping to optimize the DivX codec -- the currently available implementation of MPEG-4 -- achieving encoding speeds of better than real time. At January's MacWorld Expo, Apple will release a new version of QuickTime complete with MPEG-4 compatibility.

Although Windows Media Video is based on MPEG-4, Microsoft has yet to back the initiative and keeps its audio codec and file format proprietary.

Microsoft has instead opted to secure its place in the living room early, partnering with manufacturers of DVD processors to embed support for Corona in their chips. While Windows Media enabled DVD players will initially focus on audio playback, the company envisions a future of movies distributed and protected with its formats. And as video on demand becomes a reality and more home entertainment devices ship with broadband connections, content providers may eventually have no choice but to stream using the only supported platform - Windows Media.

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