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Microsoft Announces New Level of Streaming Integration

Microsoft president and CEO Steve Ballmer kicked off the Streaming Media West show with a keynote proclaiming Microsoft's "Digital Media Everywhere" initiative. He showed off technological improvements in the enterprise arena with Windows Producer, new audio and video codecs, and a preview of Windows Media Player 8.

Ballmer indicated that the digital media market is growing at a tremendous pace, with MSNBC showing 6.8 million streams in November. He also said that twice as many people listen to Internet radio than watch Monday Night Football.

Despite the technological advances, however, Ballmer said there's still room for improvement. "We are so far from what this industry can really accomplish. The next five years will be more exciting than the last five," he said. According to Ballmer, Microsoft is investing $200 million in the digital media space.

During his keynote, Ballmer talked about the next operating system, codenamed "Whistler", which features advanced audio and video functions. He also unveiled new Windows Media 8 audio and video codecs with significant quality improvements. Near CD-quality audio is now available at 48Kbps, beating Microsoft's previous 64Kbps rate. For video, "near VHS" is available at 250Kbps, while "near DVD" is at 500Kbps.

The quest for higher quality audio and video is growing rapidly. In May, RealNetworks announced RealVideo 8, which it claims can show VHS quality video at about 300Kbps. More recently, it announced RealAudio 8, which provides CD quality audio at 64Kbps - half the size of MP3. However, Microsoft now has the upper hand, with its announcement that it will support CD quality audio at 48Kbps. Windows Media 8 codecs are backward-compatible with Windows Media Player 7 and 6.4.

With the new codec released Tuesday, Microsoft says users can store about three times more music than MP3 on portable devices. Microsoft also unveiled its new Windows Media Player 8 for Pocket PC devices.

Ballmer also announced a wireless streaming deal with Japanese wireless company NTT DoCoMo. Will Poole, vice president of the digital media division, showed off the "Eggy", a new wireless devices offered by NTT DoCoMo and powered by Windows Media. Eggy and the new service were launched this month and are now available in Japan.

Streaming in the Enterprise

In the enterprise arena, Ballmer predicted that eventually, every company will be using streaming technology on their intranets. He showed a prerelease version of Windows Media Producer, a new authoring tool that lets users create, edit and publish streaming media content for corporate communications.

As part of the keynote, Microsoft demonstrated the tool in an example where a hypothetical CEO could make a presentation for employees incorporating streaming video, synchronized audio, graphical slides, and interactive polling.

Utilizing Eloquent Communications Server (ECS) 6.1, users of the Windows Media Producer are able to self-assemble rich media presentations out of existing streaming content. With ECS, end users can integrate audio, video, graphics, text, reference documents and URLs into custom corporate presentations. The system is set up to integrate Microsoft's suite of products, including PowerPoint and the Windows Media Player.

Ballmer noted that Microsoft has already provided enterprise publishing resources for such companies as Aetna, Ernst & Young, and J.D. Edwards.

"In the same way PowerPoint became popular once the power to create graphical presentations was put into the hands of the user, enterprise adoption of streaming and rich media applications is poised for real growth with easy-to-use products like the ECS 6.1," said Cliff Reid, CEO of Eloquent, in a statement.

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