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Microsoft unveils new Windows Media

Microsoft has offered a glimpse of the next version of its Windows Media range of products.

They include new server software and developer tools and an improved encoding technology that Microsoft claims will allow broadband users to play digital audio and video files over the Internet as easily as changing channels on a TV.

Code-named Corona, the new products and technologies will eventually succeed Windows Media 8, which forms the basis of Microsoft's current media player that is included with the Windows XP operating system.

Microsoft has released a beta version of its Windows Media Services for Windows .Net Server. The software will allow users to stream files encoded in the new Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) formats from future Microsoft server products.

The software includes a new feature called Fast Stream, which enables digital files to be delivered over high-speed Internet connections without the use of buffering. Fast Stream is intended to create what Jonathan Usher, group product manager with Microsoft's Windows digital media division, called "always-on access to media".

"It responds as quickly as when you change the channel on your TV," he said.

Windows Media Services will also add new features for improving the quality of media files streamed to wireless devices, the company said.

Microsoft plans to release the remaining parts of its new media platform early next year, including a software development kit for developers and two new encoding technologies, known as codecs (compression/decompression), for compressing WMA and WMV files for delivery across the Internet.

Promising 20% improved quality over Windows Media 8 with the new codecs, audio files will have better-than-CD quality and video files will appear as sharp as high-definition television, according to Usher.

As well as improving playback quality for end users, the new media format should benefit content makers who pay for bandwidth to deliver media across the Internet, Usher said. A full-length movie, for instance, will be compressible to 400Mb, rather than 500Mb using the current WMV file format.

Content delivery networks which, Usher said, typically charge for bandwidth at a rate of about $0.01 per 2Mb, mean the new file formats should allow content makers to reduce the cost of delivering content. "The tighter you can pack it down, the less you pay for bandwidth costs. It can make a really big impact on the economics of video-on-demand and delivering music over the Net," he said.

Microsoft's proprietary media format competes against those from RealNetworks and Apple, as well as the MP3 file format, an open standard made popular through file swapping services such as Napster.

"This is one of the areas that's going through a lot of change and Microsoft is very serious about being a player," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group. "They're in a clear race right now trying to establish themselves as the de facto standard for streaming media and delivering digital music content. "We'll see how it turns out," he said.

Microsoft has also announced that several makers of chips for DVD players have agreed to add support for the new Windows Media formats. Partners include Cirrus Logic, ESS Technology, LSI Logic, ST Microelectronics and Zoran.

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