Microsoft launches MP3 killer

Microsoft has jumped into the streaming media ring with both feet. The software giant has unveiled Windows Media Technologies (WMT) 4.0 -- its answer to MP3 -- during a star-studded event in Los Angeles.

"It's the best audio, period," declared Jim Allchin, senior vice president at Microsoft. "Windows Media Technologies 4.0 wins both races -- streaming and downloads."

Microsoft's new streaming media platform, codenamed MS Audio during its development phase, serves high-quality FM radio at standard modem speeds. "For the first time, the broadest population of Internet users are going to be able to get great FM stereo quality," Allchin said.

Allchin added that WMT delivers the same general quality as MP3, at half the file size.

Rock legend Mick Fleetwood participated in a live audio taste test during the announcement. By the fourth comparison of WMT against MP3, Fleetwood joked, "There's no contest. I'm not sure I need to be up here."

More MP3 wannabes

Some industry watchers don't place too much stock in WMT's demonstrated technological dominance over MP3, noting that the MP3 format is more than five years old. "It's not that shocking that Microsoft's sound quality is superior to MP3," said Lucas Graves, a Web technology analyst with US-based Jupiter Communications.

"(Microsoft) certainly has not seized an insurmountable lead," Graves added. "Other MP3 alternatives are vastly improved."

Microsoft's biggest obstacle continues to be major record label endorsement of its streaming media platform, Graves said. "The major labels have a certain amount of trepidation about making Microsoft their core technology provider."

This may be another case of Microsoft's reputation preceding its attempt to penetrate an already established market, Graves said.

Independent support

While major record labels remain noncommittal, a slew of independent labels, content providers, software developers and hardware companies have pledged support for WMT. By Allchin's count, 67 streaming media content providers have signed on to Microsoft's new platform.

The online juggernauts poised to adopt WMT include Excite, MTV Interactive and Broadcast.com.

Excite will incorporate Windows Media into its online communities. "Tens of millions of Internet users that have the Windows Media Player can access Excite community content," says Joe Kraus, senior vice president at Excite.

Clamping down on piracy

"We are committed to pursuing any and all formats that embrace the concept of digital safety," said David Goldberg, chief executive at Launch Media.

Enter Microsoft's Windows Media Rights Manager, a security system built into Windows Media Technologies 4.0 that enables content producers to distribute licensed material and exact revenue through controlled electronic distribution.

"We are as committed to content protection as we are to content production," said Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief executive. "The new digital rights management tool will allow you to manage and distribute licensed content anywhere on the Internet."

But the Windows Media Rights Manager is not the final answer for copyright protection on the Web, Microsoft executives agreed. "It's not a perfect solution but it will help address pass-around and accidental piracy," said Will Poole, senior director of marketing and business development for Microsoft's streaming media division.

The management tool provides an alternative to content licensing that is appealing to unsigned artists and independent labels. Under the system, music consumers can acquire a song license by joining a fan club through a Web forum, making a direct payment with a credit card, or viewing a Web page with advertisements.

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