Microsoft looks to extend digital media reach

The software giant, seeking to become a vital player in the budding world of digital media, details software products intended to ensure its influence over music and video.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
SEATTLE--Microsoft, seeking to become a vital player in the budding world of digital media, detailed on Tuesday a host of software products intended to ensure its influence over music and video.

Digital media such as MP3 music files or streams of video sent over the Internet must be created, edited, encrypted, encoded, indexed and distributed, and Microsoft has software involved in all these tasks, Amir Majidimehr, Microsoft's general manager of digital media, told hardware engineers at the company's WinHEC conference here.

One key part of that plan is Microsoft's Windows Media Video (WMV) format, a new way to encode video that has been under development for years and is reaching completion. "We have frozen the syntax for Windows Media Video," Majidimehr said Tuesday.

Freezing the format will make it possible to encode and decode files without having to worry about whether the file will be out of date in a few months. That could reduce the reluctance of business partners to target their products to the WMV format.

Audio and video formats may sound like an obscure byway of the computing technology landscape. But they are the center of an interconnected web of technologies that spans the computing industry. Media formats help Microsoft extend its dominance in the PC market to other areas, an issue that's at the center of the ongoing antitrust trials.

Video information currently is encoded with several formats: MPEG-2 (used on digital cable TV set-top boxes), MPEG-4, Apple Computer's QuickTime format and other methods. But Microsoft, through the potent distribution channel that is Windows, has an immediate advantage over many competitors in finding a way to propagate its own formats. More than 90 percent of the world's PCs run the Windows operating system.

It's a tactic familiar to Microsoft with its Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, whose particulars the company locked down three years ago. Where the competing MP3 audio format once was dominant, Microsoft has made major inroads with WMA, including support for the format in 110 devices such as car stereos. Soon, "you'll have a hard time finding DVD players that won't play WMA," because of deals with 90 percent of DVD chip makers that led to onboard support, Majidimehr said.

Microsoft also is advocating use of its Windows Media Container file format, which goes by the initials ASF and can contain audio and video information as well as pictures such as album art, text such as playlists, and small programs called scripts.

Microsoft also plans to reiterate an argument it made in the struggle to get WMA to catch on: economics. WMV is more efficient than MPEG-4 in encoding video, Majidimehr said, letting three movies fit on a single DVD.

The challenge for Linux
The power Microsoft exerts in media formats relates to how difficult an obstacle it's been for Linux fans not to have full support of widely used Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint file formats.

Microsoft controls its file formats, so a company such as Red Hat or Apple with a competing operating system either needs Microsoft's support or must figure out on its own how the encoding works if it wants to tap into the Windows Media realm.

"If you use any Microsoft operating system, you get all our technology. If you don't use our operating system, there is a licensing fee," Majidimehr said.

Microsoft's media technology extends to the Internet as well. Companies that want to send streams of video or audio over the Internet--a future incarnation of Blockbuster video rental, for example--must do so with Microsoft software or Microsoft-licensed software. That means Microsoft can advance its video streaming server software while denying the ability to competitors such as Sun Microsystems or Linux companies.

Microsoft also is improving its audio format. WMA Professional will debut with Corona, a new version of Windows Media Player coming later this year. The format supports six channels of audio sound for speakers that surround a computer user, but the compression used lets this information be transferred at 128 kilobits per second, an improvement over the 384 kilobits per second required by the prevailing "5.1" standard from Dolby Laboratories, Majidimehr said.

This influence is amplified by Microsoft's digital rights management (DRM) software, which controls whether content protected by copyright holders can be viewed or heard. The MP3 format isn't constrained in this way, making it easy to copy a song from a PC to a portable music player, for example. The recording industry, accustomed to having consumers pay for each copy of music they desire, loathes such liberty.

Windows' digital rights management is a key plank in wooing media partners such as Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI, BMG Entertainment and Warner Music Group.

Microsoft also plans to expand its DRM software to digital music players and other gadgets through its Mercury anti-piracy initiative.

Supporting Microsoft's digital media standards also is key if device makers want their products to have full support from Windows, Majidimehr said. Compliance with Microsoft digital rights standards for copying digital files is required before the device will work with Windows Media Player's abilities to let people play and otherwise handle digital media.

New device manager software with Corona will be able to automatically detect when new digital media devices have been plugged into or unplugged from a host PC.

Microsoft is adding its digital media software support to Windows Explorer, the company said. That support will enable Windows to take automatic actions when digital media devices are connected.

Microsoft apparently has learned from troubles it got into with Kodak over how Windows Explorer behaved when digital cameras were connected. With Windows Media devices, the Explorer "AutoPlay" actions will by default take the action the device's developer, not Microsoft, specifies.

As a bridge from PCs to conventional stereo systems, Microsoft proposes using a "digital audio receiver"--in particular, one that uses Microsoft's Windows CE operating system and supports Microsoft's digital media formats, rights management and decoding software as well as other Microsoft technology such as Universal Plug and Play networking. Digital audio receivers have no hard disks, according to Microsoft's definition.