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Streaming companies push toward TV quality

Technology companies positioning themselves for a better foothold in the faltering Internet audio and video market will unveil a slew of new--and, they say, improved--products.

Technology companies positioning themselves for a better foothold in the faltering Internet audio and video market will unveil Tuesday a slew of new--and, they say, improved--products.

The jerky presentation of many events streamed through the Internet is a turnoff for many consumers. The response has diminished hopes that online broadcasting might become a major player.

But companies showcasing new products at the Streaming Media West 2000 conference in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday and Wednesday hope to move the industry a step closer to TV-quality viewing on the Web.

Among the 250 or so exhibitors at the conference, analysts say the race to watch is between powerhouse players Microsoft and RealNetworks, which have been in stiff competition for the streaming media market.

"It's going to be the battle of the big boys in terms of announcements," said Jennifer Jordan, a senior equities analyst at Van Kasper, a division of Wells Fargo Bank.

Other exhibitors will include TuneTo.com, a small online radio company that plans to announce a technique for delivering songs to pocket computers equipped with wireless modems.

Seattle, Wash.-based Loudeye Media will tout a new media subscription service that helps manage digital content. The company also plans to announce that it has signed a licensing deal with Bertelsmann's BMG Entertainment. Under the agreement, Loudeye will be able to put BMG's music catalog in a digital format and store songs.

Ballmer keynote
In his hour-long opening keynote address, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer is expected to run through a series of announcements and display new digital technologies such as Windows Media Audio and Video 8, which the company says will improve the quality of sound and video on the Internet.

Gartner analyst Lou Latham says the hype from Streaming Media West 2000 suggests that you'll see "Apocalypse Now" on your PC, with DVD quality, any day now. But the real picture is blurrier--and likely to remain so for years.

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The new compression technology is delivered at 500 kilobits per second, meaning the picture could be significantly clearer for those using high-speed connections, said Jonathan Usher, group product manager for Microsoft's Digital Media Division.

The company also plans to announce that it will be able to deliver nearly a full day's worth of music on Kenwood's portable PC player. Using Windows Media Player, music lovers will be able to convert their CD collections to a digital format. Then, by burning the digital music onto one CD, the consumer can listen to about 22 hours of music on the Kenwood player without hearing a song twice.

"I'm looking forward to using it on my next flight to New Zealand," Usher said.

Swimming with sharks The Microsoft announcements will share the stage with competitor RealNetworks, a pioneer in streaming media circles. Chief executive Rob Glaser is not giving a keynote, but his company will demonstrate its updated software for managing sound and image delivery to PCs.

The new version, RealSystem iQ, uses many points of transmission to deliver video. The decentralized technology reduces network traffic jams to make delivery faster.

"RealSystem iQ is another big step forward toward our longstanding goal of turning the Internet into the next great mass medium," Glaser said in a statement.

Flash over substance?
Van Kasper's Jordan is skeptical that the faster service will actually improve quality. She described the announcements by both companies as "a lot of flash but not a lot of substance."

Jordan, like many other analysts, noted that streaming media requires sophisticated broadband connections, which she says about 5 million Americans own. Though more people are using digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modem connections, watching a film streamed over the Internet onto the computer is a long way from becoming commonplace, she added.

"That's not to say we won't be seeing something exciting in the future," she said. "We just need to give it time to grow. It's still in its infancy, and we're expecting it to act like a teenager."