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Microsoft MIX 09: Live Smooth Streaming, Silverlight 3 and Internet Explorer 8

At the annual Microsoft MIX conference in Las Vegas last week, there was no sign that the recession had dampened research and development budgets for the world's largest software company. announced the immediate availability of Windows Internet Explorer 8. In Thursday’s keynote address, Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft, showcased solutions from industry partners and Microsoft touted the new browser's compliance with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards.

Dubbed Microsoft's most standards-compliant browser to date, Microsoft took W3C compliance seriously, submitting more than 7,000 cascading style sheet (CSS) 2.1 test cases

"Internet Explorer 8 now passes more of the W3C CSS 2.1 test cases than any other shipping browser," said Hachamovitch, "and has invested significantly in support for HTML 5. Defaulting to standards-mode for Web sites enables developers to be sure their code runs across multiple browsers and platforms."

Smooth Streaming
Another benefit of Internet Explorer 8 directly leverages streaming technologies: Microsoft kept the streaming competition with Adobe Flash alive by demonstrating live Smooth Streaming capabilities, and announced Silverlight 3.

StreamingMedia.com readers will remember we covered Smooth Streaming back in late 2008, as Microsoft partnered with several CDNs to test Smooth Streaming, a way of "chunking" files into 2-second increments, somewhat akin to a combination of Move Technologies' core streaming technology and dynamic streaming that automates the changing of bandwidth speeds to match network conditions. At the time of the initial announcement of Smooth Streaming, Akamai demonstrated Smooth Streaming with on-demand high-definition content, as it is the most likely to be impacted by network congestion or other bandwidth constraints.

The Smooth Streaming on-demand content tests allowed end users to watch HD content at varying bitrates, with playback bandwidth speeds changing as frequently as every two seconds: should network congestion occur, by scaling down to the next best content bandwidth, rather than forcing the end user to wait for viewing to refill the local machine's buffer. Conversely, if the end user suddenly has more bandwidth available (should network conditions improve) the content playback may actually increase in quality.

Having proved that on-demand HD content could be served up via the Smooth Streaming technology, Microsoft used MIX 09 to take Smooth Streaming to the logical next step: live streaming. During the initial Smooth Streaming tests, we'd asked about live streaming capabilities and were told that two things would need to occur: first, a Live Smooth Streaming server would need to be implemented, and second, an encoding company would need to release a live streaming server capable of handling Smooth Streaming.

At MIX 09, both of these steps were put into play: first, Microsoft announced the beta version of a server for Live Smooth Streaming, which includes an innovative "simulated live" encoder. The benefit of this simulated live encoder, which can use a local file in a loop that is sent to the beta server, is two-fold. First, any local file can be assessed for how that type of content (action, talking heads, etc.) would be handled by the Live Smooth Streaming server. More importantly, however, is a secondary cost benefit: without the need for a real live Smooth Streaming encoder, server, network, and player testing can be done without having to run an actual encoder in a 24x7 scenario.

For those who don't want to do "simulated live" - or who just want to jump right in to Live Smooth Streaming - Microsoft and Inlet Technologies demonstrated one of its Spinnaker live encoding appliances using Live Smooth Streaming technology, tying the modified Spinnaker box to the new beta server mentioned above.

Inlet, led by Neal Page, who as CEO has overseen a number of firsts in HD content encoding, sees this as a win for media companies looking to improve their overall quality of service on the web for a growing base of users who want web-based television-like delivery.

"We are excited to have yet another ‘first’ under our belt, with this support for Microsoft Smooth Streaming," said Page, Inlet's CEO. "Smooth Streaming is a significant leap forward, and presents a compelling opportunity to help media companies improve the quality of online video for all of their customers."

Given the ability to use Smooth Streaming for live content, service providers and content owners may begin to see a way forward toward traditional time-shifting and place-shifting features. We've confirmed that Live Smooth Streaming provides the same Personal Video Recorder (PVR) Tivo-like capability to buffer live content, pausing it and scrubbing forwards and backwards through the portion of the live event that has already aired.

In addition, as a move toward a quasi network-based PVR that many of the telecoms and cable MSOs are experimenting with, the chunking of live Smooth Streaming content can be proxy-cached, meaning that bandwidth spikes can be mitigated, especially when it comes to enterprise content delivery.

"With ISP and enterprise proxy caches," says Ben Waggoner, a member of Microsoft's Windows Media team, "up to 100 people can watch the same stream behind the same corporate firewall, with only one copy of each chunk needing to traverse the network behind the firewall."

To sum that part up, live is looking - and behaving - a whole lot more like on-demand content these days, thanks to Smooth Streaming and other competing technologies.

Silverlight 3
Microsoft's final announcement with Smooth Streaming has to do with the launch of Silverlight 3. Although details on the launch of the new Silverlight, the anticipated replacement to Silverlight and Silverlight 2, are relatively scarce since version 3 is still in beta, both the original Silverlight and Silverlight 2 have been used for major sporting events in the past.

True to form, Microsoft announced NBC will be using Silverlight with Live Smooth Streaming, for content delivery up to 720p HD, for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics which will be held in February 2010.

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