LOS ANGELES--Microsoft on Wednesday introduced its long-awaited
digital media software, Windows Media Player 9 Series, in an effort
to establish dominance for its operating system in
distributing high-quality digital content.
Chairman Bill Gates formally presented the
software on Wednesday evening at an extravagant party in
In true Hollywood fashion, Gates
was joined by "Titanic" director James Cameron,
Beatles producer Sir George Martin and musician LL
Cool J in showing off the technology. Not to be outdone, Gates also starred in a video presentation where he played the roles of fictional magician Harry Potter and comedic secret agent Austin Powers.
"This is a real milestone for us," Gates said. "All of this fits into an overall vision of the next decade, which we see as the digital decade (where the) PC will play a central role."
But to get to that point, he said, "we have to improve the quality and ease of use" of the technology. That is already happening, thanks to faster computer processors, cheaper storage and "the magic of software," he added.
During his speech, Gates described a future in which millions of homes would be connected wirelessly, while residents used various electronic devices to share music, videos and other content.
Windows Media Player 9, formerly code-named Corona, has been
in development for nearly four years at a cost of about $500 million, Gates said. It improves on
earlier versions of Microsoft's digital player and
server technology on a number of fronts. For businesses, the technology includes improved media management features. For consumer media playing, the system is updated for speed and seamless playback to create a more TV-like experience on the PC.
With the introduction of the updated media player, which is in the final testing stage and not yet commercially available, Microsoft is
aggressively courting Hollywood, which is at the crossroads of the convergence between television and the Internet. The software debut also puts the company
into fiercer competition with RealNetworks, the
forerunner of digital media playback software, which
introduced an improved version of its technology
earlier this year.
"From Microsoft's perspective, digital
entertainment and digital media are important
catalysts for driving the next big cycle of PC
upgrades," Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt
"But the challenge for Microsoft is to convince
content creators their intellectual property won't be
pirated" in the process, Rosoff added.
The piracy problem
Gates noted that piracy remains a major hurdle in getting Hollywood to embrace digitization of its content. Piracy, he said, reminded him of the early days of the PC, when much of the commercial software was pirated. At the time, Gates wrote an open letter to encourage software licensing.
To change attitudes toward piracy, Gates proposed making content available digitally in a way consumers could easily pay for it. He also stressed education, the enforcement of copyright laws and wider use of piracy-prevention software.
Microsoft has made several changes to Windows Media
Player 9, some of which will be available only with
Windows XP. Microsoft issued a release candidate, or
near-testing version, on Wednesday for Windows 98
Second Edition, Windows Me, Windows 2000 and Windows
Many of the biggest improvements were made to the
audio and video performance. As expected, Microsoft
released new audio and video codecs, which, like MPEG-4, use a
smaller file, or bit, size. The company estimates that
content creators can get 20 percent smaller files
with the same quality that they get now. Another audio
enhancement lets content providers stream in 5.1
sound, which would improve the quality of sound for concerts or movies
streamed over the Web.
Windows' latest audio with 5.1 surround sound, will be featured with the Sept. 25 release of musician Peter Gabriel's new CD, "Up."
Microsoft envisions Windows Media Series 9 as a way for
third parties to deliver and sell digital content
services, whether streamed or downloaded.
With the launch, Microsoft announced more than 60 partners
that will support Windows Media 9, including
movies-on-demand services Intertainer and CinemaNow,
and audio sites FullAudio and Pressplay. Those partners will be added to a "services" tab on the new
The software maker also said that BMW Films will use Windows
Media 9 to project its short-film series in digital
theaters in the United States in the coming year.
National Public Radio is planning to use Microsoft?s
newest audio component to play several programs
Limited MP3 support
Like its predecessor, Windows Media Player 9 offers
only limited support for MP3 files, unless the consumer pays
for an add-in product. The media program will play
MP3s but won't
rip files in the format without extra costs and
third-party components from CyberLink or InterVideo.
As it did with Windows Media Player 8, Roxio provides
the CD-burning engine.
The software behemoth also has beefed up consumer
privacy, giving consumers control over whether Internet
sites can identify the player, and whether Windows Media
Player 9 can track CD and DVD song history, among other
"We're creating a breakthrough playback experience,"
said Michael Aldridge, lead product manager for Microsoft's Windows Digital Media division.
To the player, Microsoft added Auto Playlists, which
are in some ways similar to the SmartPlaylist feature
part of Apple Computer's iTunes 3. Both features help to
quickly organize digital music files. The new Windows
Media comes with more than a dozen preconfigured Auto
Playlists for organizing songs such as by genre, rating or most played.
Like iTunes 3, which Apple released in July, Windows
Media Player 9 Series rates songs on a one- to five-star scale. Both programs also can organize playlists
based on rating. By default, Windows Media Player
assigns all songs three stars.
Windows Media Player 9 comes with an ample
selection of "skins," or different colors or motifs; but on Windows XP, consumers also can manually change the color scheme of the player.
The player is updated to improve the quality of video playback so that viewers don't have to wait for the video, a process known as buffering. Called FastStream, the technology uses the available bandwidth to the PC to deliver more of content at once, enabling the viewer to fast-forward or rewind relatively seamlessly.
The new player offers other enhancements for
organizing songs such as more intuitive file folders,
a Windows XP feature. Windows Media Series 9 Player
also can categorize from the metadata or even
clean up and add missing metadata from older songs
ripped without the information.
Microsoft's media player adds cross-fading
between songs, similar to the transitions heard over
the radio, giving the consumer control over the duration
of overlap between two songs. Apple introduced a
similar feature with iTunes 2 and increased control
over it in the new version. RealNetworks' RealOne now
supports the feature, too. Windows Media 9 also can
even out the sound level among songs, a longstanding
feature of MusicMatch and new to iTunes with version
When consumers minimize the program to the Windows
Task Bar, a player control appears on the task
bar for listening to digital media, adjusting sound or
accessing other commonly used features. A video pops up
in a window when the task-bar control is
Microsoft also improved digital rights management, which could be important for PressPlay and
other premium services providers. Consumers can now back up
the licenses for the songs they purchase so they are
not lost should the PC hard drive become corrupted or
infected with a virus.
The Real rival
In contrast to Microsoft, RealNetworks is aiming to
become the online equivalent of a cable operator, in which it
provides exclusive content to subscribers. The
strategy has already helped the company gain 700,000
subscribers for entertainment including audio and video clips
of TV shows and live baseball.
In contrast, Microsoft is planning to provide the
technology for other subscription services to provide
quality video and audio playback.
"We're about creating technology innovations to enable
a bouquet of subscription services," said Microsoft's Aldridge.
RealNetworks launched its Helix Universal server
this summer in a move to improve its chances in the
server market by supporting most media formats. On
Wednesday, RealNetworks said that its Helix Universal
server and RealOne Player would support Windows Media
9 Series Beta content delivery and playback.
"We are delighted to add support for Windows Media 9
as a new feature of our universal media server and
player products," said RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser. "Now consumers can use a single player--RealOne--to manage and play all of the
digital media on their PC and on the Internet. And
broadcasters and enterprises can now deliver Windows
Media 9 along with every other major format via an
operating system-independent, carrier-class platform."