Microsoft announces streaming beta, ISMA formed

In a keynote address at Streaming Media West 2000 in San Jose, California, Microsoft President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer said Windows Media Audio and Video 8 represents quality improvements of as much as 30 per cent over previous compression technologies, Microsoft said in a news release.

For example, Windows Media Video 8 digital media compression technology crosses the 500Kbps threshold, enabling the delivery of film content at near-DVD (digital versatile disc) quality, the release said. Windows Media Audio 8 achieves similar improvements, offering near-CD quality sound at 48Kbps, which enables file sizes almost one-third the size of MP3-formatted music of similar audio quality, Microsoft said.

Windows Media Audio and Video 8 is fully compatible with existing Windows Media Players including version 6.4 and 7, and Windows Media Audio 8 offers integrated digital rights management technology.

Ballmer said Windows Media Player 8 will be one of the digital media features of the next version of Windows, code-named "Whistler." For business customers who want to make more extensive use of streaming media, Ballmer showed a pre-release version of Windows Media Producer, a tool that provides "knowledge workers" an intuitive way to create and publish rich media content.

Ballmer also announced the immediate availability of Windows Media Player 7 for the Pocket PC. The software offers users the ability to download and play Windows Media Audio and Video content. Users will be able to download videos such as news clips, music videos and Windows Media and MP3 music from the Web directly onto their Pocket PC.

In addition, Ballmer unveiled the first CD player to support the Windows Media audio format. The new Kenwood DPC-MP727 portable CD player can deliver more than 22 hours of CD-quality music on a single recorded CD, Microsoft said.

While Microsoft promoted its own media streaming standard, Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Kasenna, Philips Electronics and Sun Microsystems announced the founding of the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA). The five companies said they were joining forces to promote open standards for developing end-to-end media streaming solutions over IP (Internet protocol). The founders believe their collaboration will accelerate adoption of open standards and interoperability, while encouraging the development of competitive streaming media software.

"We are not trying to create standards. We are trying to agree on which ones to use," said Michael Frendo, vice president of Cisco's Technology Centre.

The promise of streaming media can be realised only if there is a single standard for consumers, service providers, network operators, equipment suppliers and content providers, William J. Raduchel, chief technology officer of America Online, said in a release. AOL, whose plans to merge with Time Warner could be approved by government regulators any day, is interested in standards for media streaming to ease the distribution of content.

The cost of deploying streaming media services to support current disparate formats has prohibited many service providers and other adopters from taking full advantage of existing market opportunities, according to ISMA. The alliance plans to adopt elements of standards that already exist for the deployment of streaming media over IP and contribute to those still in development.

The first specification from the ISMA will define an implementation agreement for the streaming MPEG-4 video and audio format over IP networks and will be circulated for review and input at the first formal meeting of ISMA in February 2001.

Upon completion of the specifications, the ISMA will promote them among developers and those seeking to deploy rich media streaming solutions. In addition to the founding companies, several companies are named in the release as supporters of ISMA, including Analog Devices, Axis Communications and Silicon Graphics.

Frendo said RealNetworks, whose streaming software leads the market, has been invited to join the ISMA.

"This alliance is open to anyone who wants to join," Frendo said. "It would be an asset to have RealNetworks on board.

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