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Microsoft Unveils Corona

At a keynote at Streaming Media East, Will Poole, VP at Microsoft’s Digital Media Division, unveiled what he called the "third generation" of its Windows Media technology, code-named "Corona". Corona is a major upgrade that includes a new beta server and advanced codecs.

The server component is available for download and testing as of today as part of the Microsoft .NET Server Beta 3 (.NET Server will be the successor to Windows 2000 Server).

A key part of Corona--which drew lots of applause from the audience--was Fast Stream a technology that aims to curb the slow initial buffering and time outs usually associated with streaming.

"Say goodbye to buffering," said David Fester, general manager of Microsoft’s digital media division.

Fast Stream helps cure the buffering blues in three ways. First, Fast Stream allows for immediate streaming with no up-front buffering. Corona does this by using all available bandwidth to deliver as much data as it can to the client immediatly so the stream begins playing instantly. While the the stream is already playing this initial data set, Corona initiates a full streaming communication between the server and client and at that time it begins regulating bandwidth allocation for delivery in a measured fashion for the duration of the experience.

The second byproduct of Fast Stream is channel surfing, which allows users to channel surf, or click different streams quickly with no buffering, just as if they were changing channels on TV. This is a byproduct of implementing technology that eliminates up-front buffering.

The third capability is bandwidth caching, where downstream bandwidth above what is being used for the stream being played is used to cache unplayed content so that if bandwidth fluctuates or the connection is lost entirely, then the user’s presentation plays unaffected. Caching continues if an end user pauses playback, although if a user presses stop, the stream does end.

This is similar to caching technologies by Burst.com, a San Francisco-based company that effectively ceased selling its products last year after running out of cash. Additionally, Apple introduced caching ability with QuickTime 5 in May 2001, but that capability effectively tops out at about 15 seconds and cannot be increased. With Corona, the server may be configured to cache up to the entire stream.

Although Fast Stream has its benefits, there are still some drawbacks. For one, it currently only works with the Windows XP Windows Media client, Microsoft expects to eventually roll out an updated player for the 98, ME, and W2K platforms. Microsoft executives, however, did not say when the new player would be released.

Fester also explained that end users need a broadband connection to take full advantage of Fast Stream, although he wouldn’t specify what a minimum bandwidth should be. He did say, however, that even dial-up users can have some functionalities of Fast Stream.

Poole also unveiled a new server-side playlist function, which lets content providers dynamically change content on the fly. Previously, streamers had to stop their streams, then add or re-order files before adding new content. Fester said the playlist function can help companies add breaking news or advertisements in the middle of streams. During the keynote, Poole demonstrated by adding a video ad for Microsoft’s Xbox in the middle of a live simulated radio stream.

Poole also demonstrated improved audio and video codecs that he said are a 20% improvement from its existing codecs. This new "high definition" video, which provides for 720x1280 video as well as 6-channel audio, was billed as the first surround sound product for streaming. Poole also said that the new codecs produce video quality at file sizes half that of today’s DVDs.

Not shown during the keynote or during afternoon press briefings was a new media encoder, an SDK to allow programmatic access to Corona server, encoder, and player technologies, as well as extensibility via a plug-in architecture. These will be available for beta testing early next year. According to Microsoft execs, Corona could even allow, through third party extensions, MPEG-4 to be delivered via the framework, though they said they did not see any benefit in doing so.

In related news, Microsoft announced that five DVD chip manufacturers will add support for Windows Media audio and video, to their chipsets. Fester said that the manufacturers have licensed its version 8 codecs, as well as the improved Corona codecs, that can be used to read data burned to CD or DVD from PCs, initially.

Manufacturers announcing support for include Cirrus Logic Inc., ESS Technology Inc., LSI Logic Corp., STMicroelectronics and Zoran Corp. Fester said that Microsoft’s improved codecs means that it can fit 22 hours of music on a DVD, or about three current DVD movies into one DVD. The first consumer DVD players capable of playing Windows Media Audio CDs are scheduled to arrive in stores early in 2002.

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