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First Look: Microsoft IIS Media Services 4

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Quick: Name a platform that can deliver two types of adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming, both live and on-demand.

Drawing a blank? So was I, until I saw an early September demonstration at the International Broadcast Conference in Amsterdam of Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS) Media Services 4, which is set for official release this week. (Editor's note: Actually, Microsoft made the official announcement today, and you can find more information on Microsoft senior program manager Chris Knowlton's blog.)

Even though the version I saw was still in beta, I was impressed enough with the technology demonstration of adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming to both Windows Phone 7 and an iPhone Apple iOS device, that I asked the Microsoft team for an invite to Redmond to get a deeper look.

What I saw furthered my interest in this multi-device, multi-protocol solution. I found that Microsoft's set of media technologies have evolved significantly; while the last unified Windows Media Technologies release a few years ago began to move toward a middle-ground in terms of delivery, the next-generation media stack solution moves fully toward a common approach to standards-based codecs and delivery.

The old model was a Windows Media Encoder, with live feeds or encoded archived files pushed to Windows Server, which then required Windows Media Services.

By contrast, the new overall media stack doesn't necessarily need a server, as it can leverage IIS Media Services, a free set of media extensions for IIS, on several non-server Windows platforms, including Windows XP Service Pack 3, Vista, and Windows 7.

The rest of the media stack for an end-to-end solution includes Expression Studio with Expression Encoder (or the stand-alone professional version, Expression Encoder 4 Pro); the Silverlight Media Framework for content playback; the new Windows Phone 7; and Windows Azure, plus a few more tools such as the Silverlight Analytics Framework and a Rough Cut Editor that was popularized during the Vancouver Olympics.

During my trip to Redmond, I tried out a variety of options around the combination of IIS Media Services 4 beta and the Encoder Expression 4 Pro application, the combination of which powers Live Smooth Streaming adaptive bitrate (ABR) for both VC-1 and H.264 codecs.

"We can now encode a spectrum of bitrates in H.264 and AAC-LC in IIS Smooth Streaming format," said John Deutscher, senior program manager for the Microsoft IIS Media team "push them to the IIS Server, and deliver out to Silverlight clients on Mac, PC, and Linux. We can also deliver to Windows Phone 7, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Nokia s60, Broadcom, and Intel set-top-boxes."

Here are a few highlights of my first look at IIS MS 4 and EE 4 Pro.

Codecs and Players
From both an encoding standpoint, with EE 4 Pro, as well as a delivery standpoint, with IIS MS 4, Microsoft's approach is one of codec agnosticism.

Microsoft's solution supports its own VC-1 as well as H.264-two codecs in the triumvirate that dominates the Blu-ray universe-equally well, which means that it can encode for and deliver to a variety of devices that need one or the other of these two standards-based codecs.

But what about players? Isn't Smooth Streaming tied at the hip to Silverlight? 

It turns out that Smooth Streaming is not tied as tightly to Silverlight as conventional wisdom might assume. The reason? A small dynamic-link library (DLL) known as the Smooth Streaming Client. 

Smooth Streaming Client (SSC) works as a plug-in to the Silverlight Media Framework, allowing the Silverlight Player to play Smooth Streaming content. The same DLL, however, also can be used by Internet Explorer 7, 8, or 9.

But, wait, it gets even better. Turns out SSC is not even tied to Internet Explorer, since it uses the Windows Runtime, meaning that the potential is there for almost any application to play back Smooth Streaming content.  

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