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Apple milks the Phantom Menace force

Four new TV ads for the upcoming Star Wars film can be seen on Apple's site, available only via the QuickTime multimedia format.

Looking to continue riding the latest wave of Star Wars hype, Apple Computer said today that four new TV commercials are available only with its popular QuickTime multimedia technology.

The new trailers, set to air today, portray various characters from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and are expected to generate huge interest online and off. In addition to the commercials, Apple will make available on its site a music video from Sony that contains cuts from the film's soundtrack.

With so much anticipation surrounding the so-called prequel to George Lucas's seminal series, Apple stands to gain considerable marketing exposure from its close relationship with Lucasfilm, the production company responsible for marketing The Phantom Menace.

"Apple is working with the Super Bowl of movies and delivering [video] over the Internet to millions of people," said Phil Schiller, vice president of worldwide marketing.

Apple said the first trailer for the movie has been downloaded 10 million times. The release was so popular that huge traffic initially jammed many sites as corporate email servers choked on clips sent to and from employees.

Apple said about 1 million of those downloads were in a higher-quality version for playback only on Apple's new QuickTime 4.0 software, which was just released two weeks ago, a significant measure of interest in the company's technology. The company didn't release the total number of downloads of the beta version of QuickTime 4.0.

Translating hype into market share
There's so much interest in the movie, that sites now exist that are showing live shots of people standing in line for the movie's May 19 opening.

With that kind of attention surrounding Phantom Menace, Apple's technology is getting tested in the heat of battle. And that is something that Apple can take to other content providers as they encourage them to adopt its latest QuickTime 4.0 technology.

QuickTime 4.0 offers the ability to do live streaming, which allows content to be played while it is being downloaded, instead of making users wait until the transfer has finished. That puts it in competition with RealNetworks and Microsoft, which are also offering technologies for streaming multimedia content over the Web.

While growing its installed user base for QuickTime through the arrangement with Lucasfilm won't hurt, Apple is also looking to gain adherents among content providers, software developers and Internet service providers (ISPs) by offering its streaming server software for free. The software can be modified for use on non-Macintosh hardware.

RealNetworks, which focuses on selling streaming server software, has been making moves to keep its lead in that market by partnering with other companies to improve the performance of Webcasts. The company has been securing deals to have partners store content closer to the end-user to reduce the amount of herky-jerky video playback often associated with Internet broadcasts.