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Microsoft releases new Net audio technology

The software maker updates its Windows multimedia package as it pushes a new standard to improve audio and make video more viable on the Internet.

Microsoft updated its Windows multimedia software today as it pushes a new standard to improve audio and make video more viable on the Internet.

Microsoft announced Microsoft Windows Media Technologies 4, which includes audio technology based on a new standard for CD-quality audio on the Net.

Windows Media is a See news analysis: Microsoft hears the sound of music group of technologies comprising a multimedia player, dubbed Windows Media Player, and software and services: Windows Media Services, Windows Media Tools, and Windows Media Audio, a software development package.

The software is one of many ways to listen to audio or watch video via the Internet. Microsoft, which does not have the most popular multimedia player, is devoting considerable resources to developing this technology. (See related story.)

Microsoft said that Sony Music Entertainment and software "jukebox" developers such as Sonic Foundry and MusicMatch are supporting the standard.

Makers of digital audio players are also behind it, including Nullsoft's WinAmp and MediaScience's Sonique.

Microsoft touted its support by pointing out that yesterday Columbia Records debuted Mariah Carey's new single HeartBreaker on Windows Media.

Puppet masters: Who controls the  Net New Windows Media technologies enables the "delivery of Internet CD-quality audio with unprecedented [data] compression...[and] accelerates the availability of a whole new class of applications," said Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, in a statement.

MusicMatch said it dropped rival technology RealAudio because of the technology. "It was an easy choice for us to drop support for RealAudio in favor of Windows Media in our newest release, MusicMatch Jukebox 4.1," said Dennis Mudd, chief executive of MusicMatch, in a statement.

But Microsoft is still playing catch up to RealAudio.

Real boasts 70 million unique registered users, compared with an estimated 30 million to 35 million for Microsoft's streaming products, according to the companies. And although estimates differ sharply, most show that the vast majority of streaming content available on the Net comes in RealNetworks' format.

In addition, Apple Computer, the third major player in the streaming industry, recently unveiled a site offering audio and video content from a number of new partners. As QuickTime's strategy evolves, it could bring Apple significant sources of new revenue and pose yet another challenge to Microsoft's attempts to dominate the market.

Today, Microsoft also said that video on the Net--which on a standard dial-up connection is typically anything but a smooth, clear picture--will get a boost too. On these slower connections Microsoft says image quality will "improve." On higher speed connections such as cable or corporate networks it is claiming "near broadcast-quality video." Capitol Records is using Windows Media for the Internet premiere of a Garth Brooks-Chris Gaines music video, Microsoft said.

Windows Media Player is available through Windows Update.