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Giants step into streaming

Microsoft and Netscape gear up to enter the market for streaming multimedia servers, a move that could put the squeeze on the industry's pioneers.

Two Internet software giants, Microsoft (MSFT) and Netscape Communications (NSCP), are gearing up to enter the market for streaming multimedia servers, a move that could put the squeeze on the industry's pioneers.

In particular, Microsoft's streaming audio and video product, called NetShow, could pose a serious challenge to smaller, established players like Progressive Networks and Xing Technologies, because of company plans to bundle NetShow with its Windows NT Server operating system.

Likewise, Netscape could become a major player in the streaming media market with an audio server, code-named Salmon, and a browser plug-in, code-named Trout. Company officials declined to comment on specific products, but did confirm that Netspace is pursuing projects related to Net-based audio and video.

Streaming media technology is becoming an increasingly common feature of Web sites that want to add video- and audio-on-demand, as well as live broadcast capabilities to their sites. The technology, which allows users to listen or view clips as they're being downloaded rather than after they've been downloaded completely, is also being touted as a corporate tool for applications such as multimedia training.

At the Networld+Interop trade show on Monday, Microsoft plans to introduce a beta version of NetShow and post the software on the Net, according to Nevet Basker, group product manager for network multimedia products at Microsoft. The product initially will appear as two separate servers for Windows NT.

The first, NetShow On-Demand, will permit Web sites to add streaming audio and video capabilities to a Web site, as well as "illustrated audio" or sound clips that are spruced up with graphics or slide show presentations, Basker said.

The underlying software for NetShow On-Demand is the ActiveX Streaming Format (ASF), a compression technology that Microsoft is pushing as Internet standard. Microsoft will offer client software for NetShow On-Demand as a set of ActiveX controls that run through Internet Explorer or as a standalone program.

The second server, NetShow Live, is not a streaming server, but uses an advanced Internet technology called IP Multicasting to broadcast live audio and software files to users.

IP Multicasting, though, is not a widely available feature of networks. Only a special portion of the Internet, called the MBone, and some corporate networks are capable of multicast transmissions.

As a result, Microsoft will target its marketing of NetShow Live at corporations and software developers that want to create applications such as software distribution and multimedia broadcasts, Nevet said.

Nevet also said that Microsoft doesn't expect to compete with the current audio streaming market leader, Progressive Networks, but that the two companies will partner at some point in the near future.

Microsoft's plan to bundle NetShow with Windows NT 4.0 could rile Netscape, which has previously accused Microsoft of anticompetitive behavior because of its bundling of a Web server with Windows NT.