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Player Penetration By The Numbers

The market for freely downloadable media players has long represented the front lines for companies embroiled in the codec wars. Since the results of most side-by-side comparisons are subjective and qualitative at best, Microsoft, Apple, Real, Macromedia, and DivX have crowed about how many times their respective media players have been downloaded to convince content providers that using their codecs will offer the greatest reach. On the surface, this logic makes sense, but the truth is much more complicated than it seems at first glance.

To begin with, the metrics cited usually give the total number of downloads rather than the number of unique users. Plus, they rarely mention whether the amount reflects new downloads or established users upgrading to the latest version. If the number refers to the last two versions of a media player, then one user can easily equal a half-dozen downloads when you take into account a laptop, home desktop, and work computer.

On top of this, the numbers often only count downloads from the company’s Web site. Considering the fact that many of these players have myriad distribution channels outside of the company’s own site, most of the market penetration numbers that you read are, in and of themselves, next to useless.

But that’s not to say that there’s no value in taking media player market penetration into consideration when choosing a codec; you just need a little perspective. This article takes a look at five major media players—Windows Media Player, QuickTime, RealPlayer, Macromedia Flash Player, and DivX—with an eye towards what these numbers represent and what effect recent news may have on the global outlook for player penetration.

Cut to the Quick
A prime example of the caveats associated with taking download numbers at face value can be found in the purported 250 million downloads of the QuickTime player. "The only distribution numbers that we track are platform," says Frank Casanova, Apple’s senior director of product marketing for the interactive media group. "When people come to our site they declare if they want the PC or Mac version." Casanova cites the fact that 98% of the downloads are the PC version as evidence of QuickTime’s universal adoption, but the fact that Apple doesn’t track individual users renders the 250 million downloads meaningless.

But this doesn’t negate the veracity of the number nearly as much as the fact that 250 million actually only represents a small slice of the total number of players in circulation because it only counts downloads from Apple’s Web site. The other ways in which QuickTime’s player is distributed include digital cameras, of which there are more than 50 different models from companies like Canon and Olympus; nonlinear editing tools like Final Cut Pro; education and entertainment software titles; enhanced music CDs that offer video in addition to audio; and iTunes. "One of the biggest computer manufacturers in China packages it, as well as AOL," says Casanova. "Distribution isn’t a problem for us." In fact, Casanova roughly estimates that the total number of players in the market easily exceeds a billion.

While QuickTime’s architecture formed the basis of MPEG-4’s development, Apple as a company is fairly neutral as to which codec it wants to see win out. "Apple is a hardware company," explains Casanova. "First and foremost, we’re interested in selling content creation platforms; it doesn’t matter what format the content ends up in." That said, a recent Frost & Sullivan report indicated that QuickTime is creeping up on market leader Microsoft in the battle for streaming dominance, commanding 36.8% of the market.

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