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Media players play musical chairs

New methodology from Nielsen/NetRatings pushes Microsoft ahead of RealNetworks among at-work users, but lower numbers for both companies could help Apple Computer.

Nielsen/NetRatings this week began publishing media player statistics that use a new method of counting the most popular products for accessing video and audio on the Internet.

The biggest winner in the change may be Microsoft: The software giant saw its Windows Media file format take the top spot in the at-work market for April 2002, a first for the company, which has been steadily closing on industry leader RealNetworks for several years. Apple Computer's long-trailing QuickTime format slipped slightly in total files counted, but those numbers wound up closer to its rivals because of the changes, as expected.

At home, RealNetworks' RealMedia format continued to lead. But under the new methodology, the number of files in its tally dropped significantly compared to past reports.

For April, 2002, RealMedia reached 17 million at-home viewers, compared with Windows Media at 15.1 million and QuickTime at 7.3 million. At work, Windows Media drew about 12.2 million unique viewers, compared with RealMedia at 11.6 million and QuickTime at 5 million.

Nielsen/NetRatings' last multimedia report, for December 2001, showed that RealNetworks reached some 32 million at-home users and 16.3 million at work; Windows Media hit 14.6 million at home and 9.9 million at work; while QuickTime reached about 7.4 million people at home and 5.5 million people at work.

The tweaking of the numbers comes as Web measurement firms face ongoing criticism of the accuracy of accounting methods. Nielsen/NetRatings, which tabulates Web audiences based on panels of thousands of regular Web surfers, ceased reporting statistics on the multimedia formats late last year after deciding to revise its methodology on the urging of its clients and changes in the marketplace. Meanwhile, rival Media Metrix said it plans this month to phase out its reports on the usage of Internet media players and to evaluate how it will measure market share in the future.

As before, Nielsen/NetRatings tracked the file formats of the most popular multimedia players, looking at the file types accessed rather than the players used. The report bases Internet media player usage on streaming media, where video and audio are delivered in real time, as well as on downloads, where consumers first retrieve a file from the Internet and access it later from the desktop.

The new methodology does not track background and supportive files along with the main media file, which previously lead to higher results for some companies, most notably RealNetworks. As a result, the new method shrank the universe of files counted, thereby lifting the market position percentage for QuickTime, which uses relatively fewer supportive files in delivering a media clip. Nielsen/NetRatings declined to provide percentage comparisons for market share from December and April, citing differences in methodology.

The new methodology also breaks down audio and video files vs. animation and images--a change from previous reports.

But the report only tracks the proprietary file formats, excluding industry standards such as MP3 or SMIL--a factor that hurts the companies supporting them, such as Apple and RealNetworks. Eventually, Nielsen/NetRatings plans to track nonproprietary formats as well.

"As the Web evolves, we are constantly refining our tracking technology to provide deeper, more insightful media measurement," Manish Bhatia, NetRatings senior vice president of product marketing, said in a statement. "This new report offers enhanced breakdowns of multimedia activity, responding to requests from the industry for more granular information on which to base business decisions."