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Codec Rivalry Spurs Development

The two biggest codec rivals are at it again. Microsoft and RealNetworks faced off Tuesday, after Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) unveiled new codecs. During his keynote speech this week at Streaming Media West, Microsoft CEO and president, Steve Ballmer, showed off Windows Media 8, with new audio and video codecs. Ballmer said that "near VHS" video is now available at 300Kbps, while "near DVD" quality is now achievable at 500Kbps.

This is a marked improvement over current technology. Previously, RealNetworks (www.realnetworks.com) claimed to achieve that quality at much higher bit rates; 500Kbps for near-VHS and 1Mbps for near-DVD quality video.

But RealNetworks’ press manager, David Brotherton, responded by saying Windows Media Audio and Video 8 represent a "clear and futile effort by Microsoft to catch up with RealAudio 8 and RealVideo 8." He claimed that Microsoft was "long on rhetoric" but "suspiciously short on any independent, third-party substantiation to verify their claims." He pointed to two October 2000 studies, commissioned by RealNetworks, that found that users prefer the quality of RealAudio 8 over Windows Media Audio 7.

(For more on those studies go to: http://cgi.zdnet.com/slink?68145 and http://www.nstl.com/html/nstl_lab_reports.html)

"The quantifiable details are few and far between," said Brotherton. "The only thing that has verifiably changed in Windows Media is the version number."

On Wednesday, Microsoft upped the ante, saying usage of Windows Media is increasing. Recent Nielsen/NetRatings numbers showed that the number of U.S. users streaming audio and video in the Windows Media format, grew by 21 percent, or 2.3 million users. Microsoft also repeated last week’s results from a study by Millward Brown, that found three out of four people preferred Windows Media Player 7 to RealPlayer 8 and RealJukebox 8, primarily citing the greater ease of use of Windows Media Player 7.

In turn, Microsoft pooh-poohed RealNetworks’ recent RealSystem iQ unveiling. "Peer-to-peer is not new, and servers already talk to each other," said Microsoft’s technology product manager, Sean Alexander. In terms of server performance and reliability, he, too, called for independent testing, saying Microsoft has always been willing to test its servers head-to-head against Real’s servers.

Microsoft’s New Multimedia Operating System

Microsoft is also moving forward with Whistler, its new consumer-level Windows operating system. It will add new multimedia features, including a new "My Music" folder, which actually saves CD information like cover art and tracks locally. "Whistler will be central to the home," said Alexander.

Alexander also stated that users will be able to easily transfer media files to portable devices and other set-top boxes wirelessly through a universal plug-and-play (UPNP) feature. Whistler will be able to talk to other devices simply by being plugged into a phone jack -- no network configurations will be necessary. Whistler will also include an updated version of Windows Movie Maker. Alexander said that Whistler is scheduled to be unveiled toward the end of 2001. Currently, Whistler is just entering beta 2 testing.

Alexander also hinted at new updates to handheld devices that support Windows Media. On Tuesday, Microsoft announced that it was releasing Windows Media Player 7 for Pocket PCs. During Ballmer's keynote speech, the company demonstrated the "Eggy", which works on NTT DoCoMo’s wireless service. However, Alexander admitted that it wasn’t a live demo; the video was stored locally on the Eggy device, since "2G" wireless services are not available in the United States.

New Codecs. . .

Other, lesser-known codecs were plentiful at Streaming Media West. UB Video (www.ubvideo.com) released a low bit-rate video codec for Windows, called StreamForce.

"StreamForce represents yet another milestone solution to video streaming over the Internet," said Dr. Faouzi Kossentini, president and chief executive officer of UB Video. "The rich set of features incorporated into StreamForce allows the codec to be tuned to almost any video streaming scenario, from low bandwidth connections to broadband Internet."

USA Video Interactive and Piranha also recently announced new video codecs. And On2.com announced this week that Clipscom will use On2.com’s VP3 codec.

. . .Old Rivals

All the same, not one of these companies has the clout of Microsoft and RealNetworks. According to Microsoft, the new codec has nothing to do with the old MS/MPEG-4 codec. Alexander says Microsoft’s codec team was "popping champagne" and "jumping around the office" when it uncovered its newest breakthrough. The advances were realized at the encoding level, and not when playing back the video. That means that the codec could be backward compatible. Because of the extra care needed, Alexander said that encoding files takes a little longer when using the new codec.

"We have a large codec development team in-house. We develop our own codecs rather than getting them from someone else," he said. In late October, RealNetworks announced that it was using Sony’s ATRAC3 audio compression in its recently announced RealSystem 8. RealNetworks also teamed with Intel to develop the new RealVideo 8 codec.

Although the battle of the codecs may never end, there is some degree of cooperation between the two giants. RealNetworks, for example, has licensed Windows Media Audio for use in its RealJukebox. Because of this deal, RealJukebox users will be able to play back Microsoft’s new audio codec. "For playback," said Alexander, "[RealJukebox] users can take advantage of the new audio quality." But, he said that RealNetworks must license a new encoding engine in order to encode in Windows Media 8.

In the end, Brotherton says that it’s not just about codecs. "It's about end-to-end delivery over a vast and complicated network," he said. "RealSystem iQ, the peer-to-peer architecture that we announced yesterday, proves that RealNetworks is the undisputed leader here. Microsoft simply can't keep up."

While the debate seems never-ending, the proprietary codec battle may end up being good for the industry, as it may spur new and faster advances in audio and video. Better codecs might bring the value of saving money for developers who are streaming and storing ever-shrinking files. However, the reduced storage costs may not exactly offset the cost of encoding in several different formats and multiple bit rates.

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