Microsoft Corp late Wednesday used a high-profile gathering in Los Angeles to announce the launch of Windows Media 9 Series, which the company promises is faster and more functional than previous versions of its digital media software.
The Hollywood hills setting of the launch reflects the fact that Microsoft is hoping to court big media companies, a traditional strength of archrival RealNetworks Inc, as well as the enterprises where Microsoft usually fairs better than its competitors.
The company said Pressplay, the subscription music service offered by Sony, Universal and EMI, will now be accessible directly from within Windows Media Player. This presents a direct challenge to RealNetworks' MusicNet service, which features music from the other two big record companies, Warner Music and BMG.
Despite targeting the music business, Microsoft's publicity surrounding the event focused more on the performance and usability improvements in WM9, rather than the digital rights management technologies that are considered key to winning over large copyright holders.
Windows Media Player 9 Series, the WM9 playback client, was released as a free beta download to coincide with the launch. The interface and media management features, often regarded as WMP's weak point have been upgraded, and a few useful bells and whistles have been added, such as the ability to access more song metadata.
Arguably the primary feature of the new version is Fast Streaming, which, as the name suggests, increases the speed at which streaming media launches and makes better use of bandwidth on broadband connections. Rather than buffering the first few seconds of a stream, using 100Kbps of bandwidth for a 100Kbps stream, the stream starts to play in about a second, and could use 400Kbps to buffer the stream as it is playing.
WM Audio and Video codecs have also been improved. Microsoft said the maximum improvement on previous versions of WMV is 50%, depending on bit rate. The firm claims the same quality video can deliver the same quality picture at one-third the bit rate of MPEG-2 and half the bit rate of MPEG-4.
WMA9 shows a 20% improvement in quality on previous versions, Microsoft said. The company also claimed the "Professional" version of WMA9 is the first internet media software to allow 5.1-channel surround sound at rates over 128Kbps. A "Lossless" version of the codec allows bit-for-bit copying of music from CDs.
Microsoft's digital rights management technology also got a feature upgrade. The player application now allows users to back up their rights on media they have purchased, so they do not lose access to their files if their PC succumbs to a virus or bug.
The entire suite of products also includes an SDK for developers to build WM9-based applications, an encoder tool, and Windows Media Services 9 Series in Windows .NET Server. The latter product is a component of Microsoft's forthcoming server that allows companies to stream media to their users.
Microsoft announced about 60 partners in the fields of digital entertainment, digital encoding and production, and content delivery services as part of the launch. RealNetworks issued a statement separately saying its line of Helix "unversial" software will also allow WM9 media to be streamed and played back.