Microsoft Windows Media 9

Microsoft launched a powerful new suite of audio and video production and playback tools at the beginning of September that provide what the software giant states is “the Web’s first true digital surround sound.” Windows Media 9 Series, which has been demonstrated at tradeshows over the last year under its code name, Corona, incorporates audio and video compression technology that supports 5.1-channel streaming in addition to broadcast-quality video over the Internet, all integrated with the company’s Digital Rights Management.

The secure high-resolution audio and high-definition video capabilities of Windows Media 9 Series (WM9), which operate optimally with Windows XP, offer a brave new world for content providers. First aboard is Peter Gabriel, whose latest album project, UP, is being made available for streaming in 5.1 format over the Web exclusively via WM9 simultaneously with the CD release on September 25. The forward-thinking musician is a co-founder of On Demand Distribution (OD2), a subscription-based digital music company that is using Windows Media to bring easy access to music over the Internet to consumers in Western Europe. OD2 has agreed to provide a similar service for MSNBC in the U.S.

Touted as providing sound quality that is 20 percent better than its predecessor, Windows Media Audio 8, WM9 is composed of a number of audio — and video — components. WM9 Professional supports up to 24/96 audio, bringing full resolution audio to stereo, 5.1, and even 7.1-channel streaming or download-and-play at delivery rates from 128 to 768 kbps. That translates to an ability to deliver to consumers a 5.1-channel WM9 file at the same rate as a stereo MP3 file, with superior resolution.

Figures published by Microsoft, with the proviso that they are content dependent, indicate that a 6-channel 48 kHz/24-bit file encoded by WM9 Professional at 768 kbps offers comparable performance to DTS 5.1 at 1536 kbps, a compression savings of 2:1. At the other end of the scale, a 2-channel 48 kHz/20-bit file at 128 kbps results in a 1.7:1 compression saving over a comparable Dolby Digital 2.0 file at 220 kbps.

WM9 VBR supports a lower overall bit rate and file size through variable bit rate technology that optimizes sound quality by allocating more bits to those portions of the file that require them. VBR may be applied to WM9 and WM9 Professional, and may be peak-constrained where the target playback device demands it, such as a CD or DVD machine.

VBR is also a component of WM9 Lossless, a new codec aimed at maximizing storage capacity for CD archives. Encoded files may be played back on over 170 WM9-enabled devices. The codec provides bit-perfect duplication of CDs at one-half to one-third of the original file size.

WM9 Voice, the final audio portion of the new technology, provides a mixed-mode codec for both music and voice. Optimized for low bit-rate streaming at less than 20 kbps, the codec has already been adopted by National Public Radio for its popular Morning Edition and All Things Considered programs. NPR will also be utilizing WM9 Professional to deliver a 5.1 radio experience to Internet listeners to their Radio Expectations series, a co-production with the National Geographic Society.

The video technology is no less impressive. Microsoft’s video compression technology produces comparable quality to MPEG-2, but at just one-third the file size, and to MPEG-4 at one-half the size. WM9 encodes from low data-rate screen capture up to high-quality HD from 720P all the way up to 1080I/1080P. That gives Microsoft the ability to deliver an HD-quality movie with 5.1 audio on a DVD for playback on a PC, and holds the promise of 1080P playback on the next generation of computers.

For consumers, the WM9 Player brings an end to buffering and an overall improved audio and video experience. The new Windows .NET server enables instant-on streaming of audio and video, while picture smoothing overcomes the jerky visuals of narrowband reception. Playback of 20-bit HDCD-encoded CDs is also included, as are CD-R creation tools for audio and video. One neat trick: variable speed playback allows content such as presentations or news to be slowed down or speeded-up without altering the pitch.

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates has vowed to “move the PC into the mainstream” with WM9, a three-year R&D project costing a reported $500 million. With a projected 2 billion PCs in households within the next six years, Gates has positioned WM9 as the vehicle by which a television-like multimedia experience may be brought to the family computer.

Working with Hollywood movie and music companies, the company hopes to attract content providers with WM9’s flexible rights assignment features. Microsoft’s DRM capabilities have certainly impressed Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. However, less is being said publicly about recent changes in the licensing agreement for the Media Player that authorizes Microsoft to disable content or software with which it disagrees, such as peer-to-peer file-swapping applications, on consumer PCs.

Audio and video software and hardware manufacturers have already signed-up to implement WM9, including Avid, Cakewalk, Discreet, Sonic Foundry, SRSWOWcast technologies, Steinberg, Syntrillium, and Tandberg. Avid Technology has announced their intention to integrate WM9 into the next release of the Avid|DS family of products, scheduled for Q4 2002. WM9 support will enable operators to publish finished projects in WM9 with a single click.

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