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Apple gives MPEG-4 a new shine

Apple Computer says people are gravitating toward QuickTime 6 and its underlying MPEG-4 standard for digital media playback--a force to rival Microsoft's proprietary system.

Apple Computer said Tuesday that people are gravitating toward QuickTime 6 and its underlying MPEG-4 standard for digital media playback--a force to rival momentum for Microsoft's proprietary system.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company said that 25 million copies of Apple QuickTime 6, its multimedia player introduced on July 15, have been downloaded so far--adoption rates that it says underscore the acceptance of MPEG-4, an audio and video standard for condensing large digital packages into small files that can be easily transmitted online.

"We're enabling the world to jump on the standards bandwagon," said Frank Casanova, Apple's director of QuickTime Product Marketing.

The company did not release figures for use of its codecs--or digital compression technology--that is built around the MPEG-4 standard. But it said that 200,000 copies of its free QuickTime Streaming Server and Darwin Streaming Server have been downloaded in the same period.

In contrast, rival RealNetworks says it has about 280 million registered users for its RealOne Player and Real Player. Microsoft has not released the number of downloads for its newest streaming media technology, Windows Media Series 9, saying only that the response has exceeded expectations.

While Apple is finding acceptance for its newest media player among consumers, the battle behind the scenes is in providing the back-end servers and the technology to deliver digital audio and video. By supporting open standards, Apple could help bolster its position as No. 3 in the multimedia player wars. With rival RealNetworks' recent support for MPEG-4 in its latest digital media technology, the push toward standards could help Apple as the laggard.

Microsoft, which launched a test version of the Windows Media Series 9 in September, does not support the standard. Instead, it touts the quality of its proprietary formats and streaming servers as the foundation for digital media delivery on the PC and in other mediums. In recent months, the software behemoth has inked a number of licensing agreements for the technology.

Last piece in the puzzle
Apple placed its bets on MPEG-4 to showcase the quality of its digital media delivery system for its core market: content creators. Apart from stylish computers, the company sells multimedia authoring tools widely used in Hollywood. The QuickTime formats are the last piece in the puzzle to deliver content over the PC.

Analysts say that although QuickTime's adoption rates bode well for industry standards, it's less clear how it will benefit Apple financially.

"The sunny view is that MPEG-4 is emerging as a legitimate standard for modern video on the Net," said Ryan Jones, an analyst with The Yankee Group. "Where the message gets foggier is how does that translate to Apple's revenues?

"Is it going to result in the defeat of Microsoft? The answer is no."

Apple introduced its earlier digital media technology, QuickTime 5, in 2001, and since that time an estimated 130 million copies have been downloaded from the Web. The technology is also widely available on Apple computers and other devices such as digital cameras. People operating Microsoft Windows are fans, too: Apple said that nearly 95 percent of QuickTime downloads are onto Windows operating systems.

With Tuesday's announcement, Apple said that QuickTime is gaining acceptance with many new content creators, including record labels such as Jive Records, which produced digital video for Britney Spears and Wilco.

"We sell Macintosh, and QuickTime is a core technology for Apple and for the multimedia world," Apple's Casanova said. It "helps keep us at the top of the heap when it comes to content creation and multimedia authoring."