The most stunning audio and video technology available on any computer platform

It's hard to ignore the fact that Microsoft has been on a roll lately. The company's current and upcoming products are vast, full-featured and in many cases, hard to explain simply because of the wealth of new and improved features they offer. I noted this problem in my Windows .NET Server 2003 review, and I'll add a similar caveat here as well. Windows Media 9 Series, a complete end-to-end platform for digital media solutions that spans every possible hardware platform touched by Windows products, is big. It's really big. It's going to affect virtually every Windows user, in ways that are exciting and fun. And I'm going to miss something important in this review, I can just feel it. There's just so much going on here.

So hang on, it's going to be a long ride, one that I'm splitting into multiple parts, and releasing over the next week sequentially. But before we get started with Part One, let's take a look back at the history of Microsoft's digital media efforts. In the early days, when companies such as Apple, with its Macintosh and QuickTime efforts, and Commodore, with its powerful multimedia Amiga systems, were literally making some serious noise, most PCs were capable only of simple beeps and bloops. It was an embarrassing state of affairs that was only partially solved by several proprietary DOS-based solutions. With Windows becoming the PC standard of the early 1990's however, Microsoft decided that native digital media playback had to be part of the OS. And that's where our story begins.

Windows and Digital Media: A Historical Perspective
Way back in 1991, Microsoft quietly released the first version of its Media Player application, which shipped as part of the little-used Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions. A bare-bones application with play, pause, stop, and eject support and little else, the first media player out of Redmond garnered little praise or attention. Over the years, however, the player was subtly improved, as was the audio and video technology it used. With the release of Windows 95 in August 1995, Media Player adopted a wider range of controls and could play back small AVI and MPEG movie files, such as the infamous skiing movie and music videos that shipped on the CD-ROM versions of Windows 95. It was Microsoft's first credible stab at integrating digital media into a PC operating system.

Media Player, of course, eventually became known as Windows Media Player, and the first major update shipped shortly after Windows 98. This player was then updated to version 6.1 with Windows 98 Second Edition, adding support for MP3 audio, and later to version 6.4, which still ships in Windows today for backwards compatibility reasons, though it's been supplanted by a far more compelling product.

That more compelling player first surfaced as Windows Media Player 7 (WMP7), a component of Windows Millennium Edition (Me) and a free download for other Windows versions. Unlike previous versions, WMP7 was a dramatic upgrade and the first full-featured all-in-one media player available anywhere. WMP7 combined the audio and video playback of previous versions with an integrated media library for organizing local media files, audio CD playback and copying features, limited portable device integration, support for Internet radio stations, a Web-based Media Guide, and other features. More importantly, perhaps, it also featured support for Windows Media Audio (WMA) 7 and Windows Media Video (WMV) 7--two important new media formats that would finally give Microsoft a compelling alternative to competitors such as MP3, Apple QuickTime and RealAudio/RealVideo--and a Windows Media Encoder product for creating content in those formats. As I concluded in my WMP7 review in mid-2000, however, the player fell short in a few areas but excelled in media organization and playback. Regardless, WMP7 was an important first step for Microsoft, and an application that was later copied feature-for-feature by competitors. And of course, Microsoft had its own updates planned as well.

With the introduction of Windows XP in late 2001, Microsoft released Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP), which can be thought of as Windows Media Player 8, though the company refuses to call it that. MPXP is an XP-only product, not available on other Windows versions, and takes advantage of deep XP shell integration to offer a compelling and integrated experience that has yet to be matched by other media players. In addition to fixing most of my major complaints with WMP7, MPXP added optional support for MP3 copying and DVD playback (both at a small added cost, however) and support for the excellent new WMA and WMV version 8 codecs, which finally put Microsoft's formats well out of the reach of the competition. (The company also released a command line encoder product for supporting new version 8 codec features, a curious stopgap measure, but no true Encoder upgrade). Support for Windows Media formats rose dramatically with this generation, and its possible today to find a wide range of portable and consumer electronics devices that natively support WMA and WMV version 8.

From a PC user's perspective, MPXP's shell integration is its most impressive feature, however. For example, when you insert an Audio CD into your computer, Windows XP will ask you if you'd like to copy it to your hard drive using MPXP. When navigating a music folder in the shell, you'll dynamically receive appropriate options to play the music, shop for music online, or add particular songs to an MPXP playlist. And so on. XP's integration with MPXP provides a true end-to-end solution for digital music enthusiasts, one that far surpasses experiences on Mac OS X, Linux, and all previous Windows versions. It's a great solution, the best available as of this writing, though competitors such as RealNetworks have done a credible job of continually copying the MPXP feature set and working on XP integration, thanks (ironically) to the fact that Microsoft has documented how these features work. But once again, the company hasn't stood still. And its latest release, Windows Media 9 Series, should finally silence any critics.

Enter Windows Media 9 Series
As Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division General Manager Dave Fester noted in a Windows Media 9 Series Technical Reviewer's Workshop in early August 2002, "Windows Media 9 is, by far, the most important platform we've ever worked on. It's our first complete end-to-end solution in four years. Our Windows Media 8 efforts included only the Media Player for Windows XP, new audio and video codecs, and a command line encoder. It was just a slice of the technology. Now, with Windows Media 9 Series, we're bringing it all together."

Bringing it all together, indeed. Windows Media 9 Series is, as Fester notes, an entire platform, with an all new Windows Media Player, new Windows Media 9 Audio and Video codecs, new Windows Media Encoder, new Windows Media Server, new Windows Media Software Development Kit (SDK), new Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, and a new, pervasive extensibility model that lets other divisions at Microsoft, and third party developers, integrate Windows Media technologies into their own solutions.

Fester said that the Windows Media Division thinks about three things every day:

  • Ensure that Windows provides the best music and video experience of any operating system.
     
  • Enabling "anytime, anywhere" access to digital media, whether it's through PCs, on the go, or through non-PCs devices in the home.
     
  • Building a completely extensible platform--called Windows Media 9 Series--that creates opportunities for third parties to plug into that platform and create innovative products.

To determine how this platform would come together, Microsoft examined the needs of the entertainment industry, consumers, and the enterprise, and came up with a set of design goals. The entertainment industry, naturally, needs a platform they can trust, one that supplies security and intellectual property protection. Consumers want great audio and video quality, ease of use, fast performance, technology that respects their privacy and doesn't get in the way, and anytime, anywhere access to their digital media (I'd expand this a bit to include compatibility: If your favorite portable audio player or CD player doesn't support the codec, or format, in which your music is recorded, you're dead in the water; more on this later). Enterprises are looking for digital media solutions that improve productivity and give competitive advantages; likewise, the server technology must be accessible to administrators and content creators, two mutually incompatible groups.

Given these target markets, here are the design goals for Windows Media 9 Series:

  • Build the next-generation digital media platform, enabling a complete, extensible end-to-end platform. "From the server to the player to the encoder, we need to supply a broad range of media related tools and solutions," Fester noted.
     
  • Create an platform for content creators that involves advertising, branding, and flexible content creation. "Content creators have told us that 'Microsoft isn't our brand,' and they don't want us to be a portal, or get in their way, [as RealNetworks and Apple Computer do]," Fester said.
     
  • Create breakthrough end-to-end experiences for dramatically better Internet streaming, highest possible quality audio and video, and a compelling new media player that consumers can get excited about. "We have enhanced the streaming infrastructure and have the highest quality audio and video on the Net," Fester said. "This enables things that have never been done before. And our compelling new player will drive excitement by being easy, fast, and flexible. That drives the content usage up dramatically."
     
  • Remove barriers to corporate adoption of digital media.

To meet these design goals, the Windows Media Division created a wide range of new, interoperable tools that fit into every level of the digital media ecosystem. These tools include:

Windows Media Services 9 - A new Windows Media Server product, which will ship (only) as part of Windows .NET Server 2003.

Windows Media Series 9 Codecs - new audio and video codecs that extend the platform's already obvious lead over competition such as RealAudio, RealVideo and MPEG-4.

Windows Media Player 9 - An exciting and feature-laden new Windows Media Player that runs on various Windows OSes, though the version for Windows XP offers far more functionality than the other versions (More on this later as well).

Windows Media Encoder 9 - Creating stunning new content in Windows Media 9 formats.

Windows Media 9 Digital Rights Management (DRM) - Content creators can release secure digital media solutions on top of the Windows Media 9 Series platform.

Windows Media 9 Software Development Kit (SDK) - Gives software developers the tools they need to take the Windows Media 9 Series components and create unique solutions.

"These components work best together, enabling experiences you can't get anywhere else," noted Fester. "But users can mix and match as they like." Baked into the various components listed above are technologies such as Fast Streaming, which dramatically improves the playback of Internet-based streaming audio and video, and Smart Jukebox, a feature in Windows Media Player 9 that creates dynamic playlists, on the fly. Meanwhile, Video Smoothing in WMV 9 lets content creators deliver high quality 10 FPS video feeds that even modem users can access. And thanks to 5.1 and 7.1 channel surround sound support in WMA, and 720p and 1080p video quality, its possible to deliver theatre-quality sound and video at home, or even over the Internet.

The sheer number of improvements in Windows Media 9 Series are just staggering. To make these improvements easier to digest, lets take a look at the various components that make up this exciting new platform.

Windows Media 9 Series Codecs and Core Technologies
You can have a great media player or media server, but if the underlying audio and video formats you're consuming and delivering are no good, the game is already over. With the previous Windows Media generation, Windows Media 8, Microsoft raised the bar for both its audio and video codecs, beating out such competition as MP3, RealVideo/Audio, and Apple QuickTime, which was then based on the high-quality Sorenson codec. But times change. RealNetworks has introduced new codecs that inch into quality territory previous owned solely Windows Media audio and video, open source solutions like Ogg Vobis are seeking to displace the aging and insecure MP3 format, and Apple has moved QuickTime to a low-quality and very dated, but "standards-based," MPEG-4 format. For the most part, Microsoft's only serious competition, from a technical standpoint, is its own codecs. So the company started from there, naturally, and made some impressive improvements. To say that Windows Media is further distanced from the competition is an understatement. The new Windows Media Audio and Video formats simply rock.

To handle the suddenly wide variety of today's audio and video scenarios, Microsoft created a new family of WMA and WMV codecs, which include the following:

Windows Media Video 9 - WMV 9 features 15-30 percent performance and quality improvements over WMV 8, and three times the compression efficiency of MPEG-4. So how bad is MPEG-4, you ask? A 6 Mbps MPEG-4 movie, quality-wise, is comparable to a 2 Mbps WMV 9 movie, that's how bad. At 300 Kbps, WMV 9 makes QuickTime 6/MPEG-4 look silly. Even a 150 Kbps WMV 9 movie looks better than the same movie in 300 Kbps QT6 MPEG-4. It's embarrassing. Adding insult to injury, "Apple's MPEG-4 implementation is one of the worst out there," says Amir Majidimehr, the General Manager of Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division. 'It is so bad we were worried that you [reviewers] would think we were faking it."

After three years of steady improvements, Microsoft has locked the WMV decoder syntax with this release (it locked WMA in version 8), ensuring that the next several generations of WMV will be backwards compatible. This means that consumer electronics devices will now appear with WMV support in silicon, including DVD players, Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) and the like. WMV 9 also adds video interlacing support, so that set-top boxes can get better compression, though PCs will still use higher-quality non-interlaced, progressive-scan technology; this happens on the fly and is automatic, Microsoft says.

A new WMV 9 feature called Video Smoothing further distances Microsoft's codec from the competition. What this technology does is pixel-by-pixel frame interpolation, which results in super-efficient video compression. As Majidimehr noted, Video Smoothing is a "non-trivial computer science problem," and Microsoft had to ensure that the performance and quality was substantial enough that they could drop bitrates and framerates while maintaining the same quality as the source material. Regardless of how they solved this problem, the results are amazing, letting content creators deliver high-quality video at very low bitrates. In a comparison of RealVideo at 24 FPS and WMV 9 at 12-24 FPS Variable Bit Rate(VBR), the RealVideo stream looked horrible (Or, "crap," as my notes read), while the WMV 9 video is only barely distinguishable from the 180 Kbps original. Same thing with 30 FPS RealVideo vs. 10-30 FPS VBR WMV. Game over.

Windows Media Video 9 Professional - WMV 9 Professional features software-only High-Definition (Hi-Def, 1080p) video playback on PCs for the first time. Before WMV 9 Pro, analysts predicted that Hi-Def quality video playback on PCs would require expensive new hardware components and new networking and storage technologies. No more: WMV 9 Pro delivers 1920 x 1080 (1080p) resolution video, which is about six times the resolution of today's DVD movies. And this content can be rendered and played back on mid-range Pentium 4 hardware, using just software.  Microsoft demonstrated various Hi-Def-quality movies at the reviewers workshop, including clips from theatrical releases such as The Mummy Returns and Disney's Dinosaurs, which, yes, far surpassed any movie theatre experience audiences had watching these movies.

Another interesting use of WMV 9 is its slightly lower quality 720p resolution (1280 x 720) movie delivery with 5.1 discrete channels of surround sound (we'll hit the audio part of this in just a bit, below). Content creators can fit two such movies on a single DVD, significantly expanding the amount of content that can be delivered per disc. And the resulting movies, of course, are of even higher quality than the DVD movies you see today. Amazing? Yes, I think so.

Windows Media Video 9 Screen - Optimized for PC screen capture, WMV 9 Screen offers improved picture quality and CPU usage. "This is a new compression technology," Majidimehr said, "and we worked it up because compression has historically [underperformed] for training scenarios. If computer output compresses it looks blocky, and it's useless." WMV 9 Screen supports the limited palettes found on typical computer screens with lossless, streamable output at low resolutions. "It will not drop a pixel," Majidimehr noted. It's so good, in fact, that WMV 9 Screen movies featuring Web sites and photos work fairly well, an impossibility with lossy screen capture solutions like Camtasia.

Windows Media Video 9 Image - This is a new codec which enables still images to be transformed into full-motion video using pan and zoom effects. "This is cross-over technology," Majidimehr said. "We take a still imagine and transform it into full-motion video with pan and zoom effects, and cross-dissolve transitions that can be added between clips, using bit-rates as low as 20 Kbps." This is an awesome addition to the WMV arsenal, and a feature similar to one I've used on the Macintosh using a third party tool for QuickTime. Potential uses are enormous, but I've used this technology to create unique photo-based slideshows, which can be quite compelling.

Windows Media Audio 9 - On the audio side, WMA 9 features 20 percent performance and quality improvements over WMA 8 while maintaining the same decoded stream syntax. You might recall that, with WMA 8, you could realistically expect the quality of a 128 Kbps MP3 file in just 64 Kbps, or about half the encoding rate (and one-third to one-half the file size). With version 9, this has been improved to 48 Kbps. In fact, Microsoft claims that WMA 9 can deliver CD quality audio in less than 64 Kbps, about 1/20th the size of the CD original. This feat remains unmatched by the competition.

WMA 9 also supports VBR (variable bit recording) for the first time, as well. This lets users copying audio CD content in WMA format choose from simple quality levels rather than more technical-sounding encoding rates: The encoder will determine, on the fly, which encoding rate is the most appropriate, given the content that's being recorded, and the quality level that was requested.

But the most important point for existing WMA users is that WMA 9 is backwards compatible with today's players, devices, and any other decoders that support WMA 8, so there's no need to worry about upgrading to access new content.

Windows Media Audio 9 Professional - WMA 9 Professional is a new high-performance audio codec that supports better-than-CD quality resolution and targets 5.1 and 7.1 channel surround sound playback, WMA 9 Pro raises the bar for PC- and device-based audio playback. Microsoft says that it had to add multi-channel audio support to WMA because of the limitations of Dolby Digital, even in broadband scenarios. "Sony's Dolby Digital requires 384 Kbps of bandwidth [just for the sound], which doesn't leave much left over for the video stream on a 600 Kbps broadband connection," said Majidimehr. "So we had to design something more efficient. The target was to go down as low as we could, and deliver six discrete audio channels at 128 Kbps. That's about 20 Kbps per channel."

But then Microsoft looked at Dolby EX, which offers 6.1 channels of surround sound, so they went even higher and introduced a new WMA Professional mode with 7.1 discrete audio channels. But even 7.1 support is somewhat artificial, as WMA 9 Pro can technically expand beyond that as well. "There's not a lot of consumer demand beyond 7.1," Majidimehr said, "but we can have an unlimited number of channels. We just stopped at the edge of where we thought people cared." Cocky? Yeah. Exciting? Oh yeah.

To demonstrate WMA 9 Pro, Microsoft brought out a 192 Kbps MP3 copy of The Corrs' hit "Breathless," which was compared to a 6 channel WMA Pro mix of the same song. No contest. And a 7.1 version of Queen's epic "Bohemian Rhapsody"--"we did this mix ourselves," Majidimehr noted--was simply amazing.

Windows Media Audio 9 Lossless - WMA 9 Lossless is a new codec that supports mathematically lossless audio compression for audiophiles worried about ever-improving codecs. It's never getting any better than this, Microsoft notes. "Good enough ears will know the difference," Majidimehr said, "and those people don't care about small files. It's for peace of mind: Five years from now, their music doesn't have to be ripped again when a new format is released. Plus, we have huge hard drives now. You can fit 200 CDs worth of music in 50 GB using this codec."

WMA 9 Lossless features 24-bit, 96 KHz sound with 2:1 compression when compared to the CD original. And it's integrated right into Windows Media Player 9 so true audiophiles can get busy ripping CDs now. WMP 9 is the only media player to support a lossless CD ripping format.

Windows Media Audio 9 Voice - A unique new hybrid voice and music codec for AM radio-style audio streams over low-bandwidth networks, WMA 9 Voice is designed to do something that no other audio codec does well today: Play back streams that are primarily voice, but feature some music (through advertisements and intro pieces, primarily). Previous to WMA 9, Microsoft shipped the same proprietary voice codec that RealNetworks markets as RealVoice, but WMA 9 Voice offers a 20 percent compression improvement over that technology, and better sound quality. "Today's voice compressors butcher music," Majidimehr said, "And music compressors don't work on voice, s's get lispy, and there is echo." What WMA 9 Voice offers is a tiny 8 Kbps stream with AM-quality audio that sounds great with voice or music. This codec will help AM radio stations and other sources of voice content to get online quickly and cheaply.

Windows Media Player 9
For digital media enthusiasts who haven't yet upgraded to Windows XP (and shame on you for that), the release of Windows Media Player 9 (WMP 9) will initially come as a huge relief. However, this relief may soon change to an outright sense of shock when you discover that some of the best WMP 9 features are only available on--yup, you guessed it--Windows XP. That means that Windows 98, 98 SE, Millennium Edition (Me), and 2000 users who upgrade from today's offering--Windows Media Player 7.1--to WMP 9 aren't going to get the full meal deal. And that's too bad. Users with Windows NT 4.0 are in even worse shape, predictably, since they can't upgrade to WMP 9 at all (though they can access the WM9 codecs from WMP 6.4). But no self respecting digital media enthusiast would be caught dead with NT 4.0 anyway, right?

Regarding the UI, WMP 9 is a visual feast compared to the dull gray fascia of WMP 7 and the pseudo XP-like styling of MPXP. The default UI (Figure) is clean, with simple sharp lines. But WMP 9 also offers up a wealth of visually inscrutable buttons for such obscure functions as "Show menu bar," "Display playlists, audio, video, or radio stations," "Select Now Playing options," "Previous visualization," "Next visualization," "Hide taskbar," "Maximize display pane," "View full screen," "Display playlist menu," "Turn shuffle on," "Change player color" (XP only), and "Switch to skin mode." Whew. No, none of those buttons are labeled. And no, I have no idea what most of them are doing on the default player UI. Does anyone really need all of this functionality so much that all of these buttons are required? Why can't they be labeled? Why can't I turn them off?

The WMP UI mess, of course, has been with us since WMP 7 appeared over two years ago, and this is apparently the price we must pay for the vast range of functionality the player offers (RealONE users put up with a similar mess, of course, since that player is basically a WMP knock-off with hooks to RealNetworks services). I suspect Microsoft's counter to this argument is that you can use a skin to display a more basic player UI, but the basic player UI should be the default, not an option: Power users are less numerous than us commoners, and those people should be forced to turn on features, not vice versa. It's a silly state of affairs.

Anyway, with my UI complaints out of the way, WMP 9 is an excellent media player, and the market leader no matter how you measure such things. Performance has been improved dramatically since MPXP, though it still stutters over large playlists and media libraries (but then, so does the competition). Geoff Harris, the Group Product Manager for Windows Media Player 9, said that player performance was one of the biggest complaints users had with previous versions. "We spent most time working on playback and startup performance," he said. WMP 9 starts up and plays back audio within one second of Winamp 2.x, the previous performance leader, and is significantly faster than the new Winamp 3 release. ("It's twice as fast," Harris says).

One UI feature I do like is the new Quick Access Panel (Figure), which can be found by clicking the new small arrow next to the Now Playing button. From here, you can access a cascading menu displaying the contents of your media library, without having to switch the media player view to the Media Library. Good stuff.

However you shake it, WMP 9 is a huge improvement over Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP), and is now my media player of choice, even during the beta. However, in an effort to avoid further confusion about its feature-set, I'd like to discuss the WMP 9 features that work in all Windows versions first. Then, I'll cover those features that are XP-specific.

WMP 9 Features Available to All Users
Advanced visualizations - Thanks to its new extensible architecture, WMP 9 features a new visualizations plug-in engine, so that third parties can more easily create their own visualizations. To those new to WMP, visualizations are animated color displays that can optionally play during music playback. WMP 9 ships with a set of visualizations that are virtually identical to MPXP, including Album Art view, Ambience, Bars and Waves, Battery, Particle, Plenoptic, Spikes, Tolerance, and Musical Colors. And you can download other visualizations from the Windows Media Web site.

Improved privacy and security - Privacy and security are up front and center in WMP 9, thanks to recent concerns that MPXP was somehow hiding personal information about users' viewing habits on PC hard drives. When you install WMP 9, you're presented with a number of privacy and security options before you can even install the product, and new Privacy (Figure) and Security (Figure) tabs in the product's Options dialog let you control these features later if you'd like. "Privacy is now a first class feature in [WMP 9]," Harris noted. "An opt-in privacy dialog is one of the first things you'll see when you install it, and we're upfront about communicating what the privacy options are."

AutoComplete - Like many Microsoft products, WMP 9 utilizes IntelliSense technology to automatically remember text so that when you start typing elsewhere in the player, it can automatically complete what you start typing. For example, if you change an artist's name, say, from The Offspring to Offspring, and then start typing Off in the artist field later on, WMP 9 will use AutoComplete to complete the word for you.

WMA support - On non-XP OSes, WMP 9 supports WMA 9, WMA 9 Pro, and WMA 9 Voice playback, but not WMA 9 Lossless.

WMV support - On non-XP OSes, WMP 9 supports WMV 9, WMV 9 Image, and WMV 9 Screen playback, but not WMV 9 Professional.

MP3 playback support - WMP 9 uses the reference-standard Fraunhofer MP3 decoder to playback MP3 files. Contrary to rumors floating around the Internet, WMP's MP3 playback is not limited or crippled in any way.

Audio Crossfading - WMP finally supports audio crossfading, so that the songs can be played back with no space between them; instead, the end of one song fades into the beginning of the next. Using a simple slider (Figure), you can determine the number of seconds of crossfading that occurs between each song. It's a sweet feature, well implemented.

Ratings - Like Apple's iTunes, WMP 9 supports a new user ratings system, which lets you assign values of one to five stars to media (Figure). The ratings feature is especially important because your ratings can be used to generate Auto Playlists, which might include such things as your favorite or least favorite songs. Each song is automatically assigned a player rating of three stars, but those ratings aren't used to generate Auto Playlists (thank God). I've been working to add ratings to my media library for the past month, and have become very excited about the Auto Playlists these ratings enable. An excellent feature.

Smart Jukebox features - The Media Library in previous Windows Media Player versions was serviceable, but ugly and slow. That all changes in WMP 9. "The new Media Library engine includes per user library support, and huge performance gains over MPXP," Harris said. "We're seeing a 20 times performance gain on load, and 50 times on text search." Data in the old version was imperfect as well, and hard to manage. So in Corona, Microsoft makes it much easier. They call the new interface the Smart Jukebox. "Now we do things for the user that they would otherwise have to do themselves, like automate organization, create smart mixes. For advanced users, we support hands-on media management as well."

Queue-It-Up is an innovative new feature that lets you instantly add tracks to a playing playlist, from anywhere in the player. To make it work, simply start playing a selection and then navigate elsewhere in the player. Right-click the new media file you'd like to add and choose "Queue it up" (Figure). That file will be added to the end of the current playlist.

Integrated Audio CD Burning with CBR and VBR modes and MP3 copying through third-party add-ons

Like Apple's well-received iTunes application, WMP 9 supports Auto Playlists, dynamically created media playlists that automatically update to reflect any additions or changes you make to your media library. WMP 9 ships with a slew of Auto Playlists, including such thing as "Favorites--4 and 5 star rated," "Favorites--Have not heard of recent," and "Fresh tracks" (Figure). XP users can even make their own Auto Playlists (see below).

WMP 9 also includes a Playlist Editor that lets you create playlists using a two-paned dialog (Figure). The editor supports song positioning and deletion as well.

Fast Streaming - As the premier streaming media player, WMP 9 supports the new Fast Streaming technology for near instantaneous audio and video streaming functionality. This technology includes a number of components, such as Fast Start, Fast Cache, Fast Reconnect, and Fast Recovery, which combine to provide instant-on/always-on streaming capabilities. Compared to Apple Computer's Instant-On feature, Fast Streaming is a far more compelling solution, because it includes a server-side component and handles situations where the connection is dropped and needs to be resumed.

Variable Speed Playback - A new Settings option called Play Speed Controls (Figure) presents you with a UI for controlling the speed of audio and video playback. This feature lets you speed up or slow down a media clip, but still hear everything that's said. So, for example, you could speed up a monotonous corporate speech, and hear it in half the time, without the speaker sounding like one of the Chipmunks. Neat.

Web Services - Windows Media Player 9 includes a new Services tab (Figure) that will eventually contain a number of third party music and video services, such as Pressplay, FullAudio, CinemaNow, and Intertainer. Microsoft's approach here is quite different than RealNetworks, which attempts to get users to sign up to their own subscription services.

Audio CD burning - All WMP 9 users can burn audio CDs from the player, but limited to 2x speeds (XP users can access the full speed of their recorder).

A new Revert skin, which suspiciously resembles Winamp, provides a simplified playback environment that, well, should be pretty familiar to Winamp fans (Figure). This skin even includes the requisite dockable Equalizer and Playlist windows that, well, Winamp users should appreciate. And have I mentioned how much this skin reminds me of Winamp?

Easy deployment - Unlike previous WMP versions, WMP 9 is fully extensible, and easily deployable by enterprises. An Enterprise Deployment Pack will let IT administrators create custom WMP 9 installation packages using familiar Microsoft Installer (MSI) tools and their software distribution tool of choice (this feature wasn't available during the beta, and I have not tested it). And WMP 9 now supports 26 languages, the XP Multi-User Interface (MUI), and doesn't require an OS reboot after installation.

WMP 9 Features Available Only on Windows XP
Now Playing Info Center view - A new Info Center view for WMA and MP3 files (Figure) provides a Web-based display for artist and album information, ratings, lyrics, related music, news, and so on. Even though it rarely works during the beta, Info Center has already become my default view style, since I'm not really into visualizations. The Info Center is attractive and sure to be a hit with music lovers.

Mini-Player mode - In XP, it's possible to optionally minimize the player so that it docks into the right corner of the taskbar (Figure) where it's not taking up desktop space, but can still be used to access important controls, such as Play, Stop, Skip Forward, and Skip Back. The new mini-player mode grew out of an aborted XP Power Toy, which added a separate media player to the taskbar. This version, however, is integrated directly into WMP 9, providing you with access to all of your playlists and media library. Turning it on is somewhat unintuitive, however: You have to right-click the taskbar, and choose Toolbars, then Windows Media Player. Then, whenever you minimize the player, the docked player will appear. Note that the mini-player also features an optional video/visualization window (Figure), and a small pop-up window appears whenever the media selection changes (Figure). This is a neat feature, especially for power users, and its one that I use regularly and recommend.

Color Chooser - The WMP 9 UI is color customizable, using both simple and advanced controls. In the default full mode player, a small paintbrush button (one of the many inscrutable buttons you'll find on the default player; Microsoft calls it a "hue shifter") lets you cycle between 12 preset colors, including blues, purples, pinks, reds, tans, and greens. If that level of customization isn't enough, then head on over to the Color Chooser Settings (Figure), where you can use hue and saturation sliders to pick between tens of thousands of colors. Interestingly, your color customizations aren't even limited to the full mode player: They also affect the full screen controls and the Mini-Player. After two boring, monolithic WMP releases, this feature is greatly appreciated. Now explain why color customization this isn't possible with the XP shell.

Multi-channel audio - WMP 9 supports the multi-channel audio capabilities of WMA 9 Professional, 24-bit, 96 KHz playback and 20-bit HDCD decode and playback support under Windows XP.

MP3 encoding - Through the use of one of several third-party plug-ins, you will be able to copy audio CDs to your system using the popular MP3 audio format. Currently, companies such as Cyberlink, Intervideo, and Ravisent offer such plug-ins for about $10 each; the versions for MPXP work in WMP 9 as well.

DVD movie playback - Using a third party plug-in, you can also playback DVD movies with WMP 9 under Windows XP. Again, the Cyberlink, Intervideo, and Ravisent plug-ins provided for MPXP work with this version as well.

De-interlaced video playback - For set-top boxes and computers connected to the TV, WMP 9 supports de-interlaced video playback.

Hardware-based video acceleration - In Windows XP, video playback is hardware accelerated, so that users with high-end 3D video cards will get better performance. Utilizing DirectX Video Acceleration technology, WMP offloads graphical tasks from your CPU to the video card, improving performance and video quality.

Video Smoothing - The XP version of WMP can utilize the new Video Smoothing feature, described above, to playback high quality but low bitrate video streams.

Quiet Mode - If you've ever listened to a playlist and been surprised by the volume of a loud part of a track right after a softer part, then the new Quiet Mode feature is for you: What it does, basically, is equalize the volume in media files so that the louder moments don't come as a surprise, upsetting those around you and, perhaps, scaring the heck out of you. Quiet Mode is implemented as yet another Settings pane, and you can choose between off (the default), medium difference, and little difference.

Smart Jukebox improvements 

Auto Info - If you've been working with digital audio files for a while, as I have, you probably have a number of legacy MP3 or WMA files with missing ID3 tag information or meta data. These orphaned files can often be a pain to manage, and in the past you had to manually edit the tag information or meta data. In WMP 9, these files can be automatically corrected using a new Auto Info feature, which uses Smart Matching technology to identify the music and make any needed changes. I saw this feature correct a folder full of mangled MP3 files and came away impressed, but I'm still working with it here at home, so the jury is still out. However, if you'd like to test it, you can make a backup of the files and run Auto Info manually by selecting the files and choosing "Find Album Info." This triggers a Web search for the meta data using All Music Guide (AMG), which will return a list of possible matches were applicable. If the demonstration I witnessed is any indication, this could turn out to be a killer feature of WMP 9.

CD Copy with WMA 9 Lossless - XP users can copy CDs with the new WMA 9 Lossless codec.

All WMP 9 users get access to WMP 9's 15 built-in Auto Playlists, but only XP users get access to the Auto Playlist Editor  (Figure), a visual SQL editor that lets you build playlist queries on the fly. For example, you could create a playlist of top 80's pop songs or your favorite Van Halen songs, based on your applied song ratings. It's a powerful, yet easy-to-use tool.jhk

All WMP 9 users can use the built-in CD burning featuring, but XP users can use a new high-performance CD burning plug-in that lets your CD burning copy CDs at its fastest possible speed. Additionally, the audio CD burning feature includes volume leveling technology, so that all of the songs you record to CD playback at the same volume level. If you've ever experienced the misery of non-leveled audio volume, as I have, you'll appreciate this feature. The XP version of WMP 9 also supports data CD burning, so that you can copy WMA, WMV, and MP3 files to a data CD in their native format, allowing for many times the amount of music than a conventional audio CD. Many consumer electronics devices now support data CD playback, making this feature a must, though it was possible, previously, through the XP shell.

XP users also get access to an excellent Advanced Tag Editor (Figure), which can even synchronize lyrics with song playback, though this is a tedious manual process currently. Clearly designed with power users in mind, the Advanced Tag Editor provides the most advanced MP3 ID3 tag and WMA meta data editing features I've ever seen: For example, in addition to the normal Artist and Composer tags, the editor supports Orchestra or band, Conductor, Original artist, Lyricist, and Original lyricist tags under the Artist Info section. It's full-featured editor for the most discerning music lover.

My Music and folder and file monitoring support - On Windows XP, WMP 9 will proactively monitor the My Music folder, or any other folder you designate, for changes to media files. This means that you can manage your media library through the XP shell and not worry about having to rescan your media library from the player, which often requires a lot of time. You can determine which folders to monitor in the Media Library tab of the Options dialog (Figure). This feature is also handy for power users that prefer to store music somewhere other than the My Music folder. For users that do use the My Music folder, the Queue It Up feature is available directly from the shell too.

Fast User Switching support - Users with XP can use the XP Fast User Switching feature to jump back and forth between various user profiles, and WMP 9 lets two or more users load up the player simultaneously, each with their own media library. In MPXP, it was impossible to start up the player if another user left it running and logged out.

Windows Media Encoder 9 Series
Windows Media Encoder 9 is a crucial tool in the Corona arsenal, because it allows content creators to capture, encode, and convert audio and video data using all of the features of Microsoft's latest version 9 codecs. An often misunderstood tool, Windows Media Encoder 9 can be used in a wide variety of scenarios. As a desktop application, you can simply launch Windows Media Encoder and use it to convert existing media files or capture content using a DV camera or other device connected to the PC. You can also use it to perform screen captures, using the new WMV 9 Screen codec. Finally, you can use it as a component of a streaming media server, and broadcast a live event through the Encoder, using DV or VTR sources.

Microsoft's last full encoder product, Windows Media Encoder 7.1, offered similar functionality, but was limited in various ways. "Customers asked us to make it easier to use, with better profile configurations and selection," said Michael Patten, a Windows Media Encoder program manager. "Even with the Quick Start option, there were too many settings to tweak. We also improved capture support and don't limit it to certain cards, devices, or formats. [Windows Media Encoder] 7.1 is good, but we wanted to make it better, with better automation, and support for third party plug-ins and transform effects. And time code support, a must for professional VTR and DV device users."

When you start up the Encoder, you're presented with a New Session dialog that presents several wizards and quick-start templates for broadcasting live events, capturing audio or video, converting existing files, and so on (Figure). These task-based choices are designed to simplify what can often be a complex task, and for the most part, it's pretty successful. I was able to encode new content, broadcast live DV video through a Windows .NET Server 2003-based Windows Media Server, and convert existing MP3 files to WMA 9 format using this tool without any issues. Let's take a look at one example scenario.

Say you want to convert an MP3 file to WMA 9 format. Using the Encoder, you can choose the "Convert a file" option in the New Session dialog and then step through a simple wizard. First, you select the source file and the name and location for the file that will be created. Then, you're presented with the Content Distribution phase of the wizard, where you choose the way your media will be distributed (Figure). This dialog attempts to obscure technical details like bitrate, and instead present plain English choices, such as "file download" and "Windows Media Web Server." In this case, I wanted a straight conversion for local playback, so I selected "File archive." Then, you can choose encoding options which, again, are presented in plain English ("Highest quality audio" and so on). After that, you specify any display information (title, author and so on), finish up the wizard, and let the Encoder go to work (Figure).

Incidentally, using the settings I mention above, I converted a 160 Kbps MP3 (CBR) file to 285 Kbps WMA 9 (VBR). I purposefully chose a track with lots of empty space, solo piano and good stereo effects. The results were, as expected, perfect: The near CD-quality original and its WMA counterpart were identical to my ears. But then, you'd expect that: The output file is a higher bitrate. What about smaller bitrates? I went back and re-ran the wizard, selecting "Medium quality audio" instead of "Highest quality audio". This resulted in a 68 Kbps WMA 9 (VBR) file. Again, the results were indistinguishable from the original. How low can you go? How about "FM quality," the lowest setting? This gives you a 48 Kbps WMA 9 (CBR) file. The sound quality? It's unreal. It's so unreal, I want to figure out a way to post clips online, though the song I used is copyrighted. The short version is that the intro is flawless, and the only time I heard any difference is about midway through the song, when all of the instruments kick in: It gets just a hair muddy. But considering that the end file is less than one-third the size of the original.

OK, back to the Encoder. With this release, it's possible to control DV cameras and VTR devices through a standard IEEE 1394 "Firewire" interface, and even add Edit Decision Lists (EDL), which can be used to pre-define segments of a tape to encode in advance. The Encoder also supports just about every delivery medium imaginable, from Pocket PCs and other small portable devices to streaming broadband connections and local file stores. On the video side, you can encode video in multiple resolutions simultaneously and, if you have Windows Media Services 9 on the back end, automatically serve up the correct version, depending on the bandwidth of the user connected to the content. This is highly preferable to having the user select between, say, "low quality" and "high quality" versions of streaming video, as many sites do today. This feature, called Multiple Bit Rate, or MBR, is also possible with audio files.

In the near future, I'd like to do a comparison of various audio and video codecs, so I'll have more to say about Windows Media Encoder 9, and its ability to work with new WMA and WMV 9 codecs, soon.

Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM) 9 Technologies
Selena Wilson, a Group Product Manager with the Content Security Business Unit at Microsoft had the misfortune to deliver a talk about the company's Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies. She deserves credit for putting up with an unruly crowd: No sooner did her mouth open, when the hands shot up and the questions rained down. The press' reaction to Microsoft's DRM plans was very telling for a number of reasons, but most obviously it showed how little people trust this technology. The interesting thing, however, is that Microsoft is actually innovating in this very crucial space, designing and delivering DRM well ahead of the competition, and ensuring that content creators deliver audio and video securely in Windows Media formats instead of the alternatives.

"[For this technology to succeed], people need to have a positive experience with Windows Media DRM," Wilson began, "and protected content should run on open platforms like Windows or closed, unchangeable, platforms such as portable audio players. We need to protect consumer privacy, and of course content owners want to protect content." What's odd is that many people seem to think that these two tasks--protecting content from piracy, and protecting consumer privacy--are somehow mutually exclusive. They're not. Another chief misunderstanding is that people believe that DRM will prevent them from exercising their fair use rights by not allowing them to copy content to CD-Rs or other PCs. This too, is not the case. What actually happens is that protected content requires the user to acquire a license to access that content. The license can specify certain restrictions, such as where and how often it can be copied. That's up to the content creator, and it's specified up-front. For example, recording artist Peter Gabriel recently made his new album, Up, available for download from the Windows Media Web site. According to the terms of the license for Up, users that purchase the recording can copy it to recordable CDs or portable audio devices.

With Windows Media DRM 9, Microsoft has added a few crucial features for consumer devices. It's now easier to move licensed content from a PC to a portable device. And a new range of wireless portable devices, such as smart cell phones and digital audio players, are now supported.

So far, Windows Media DRM has been pretty successful, given the relative youth of the market. "Over 50 portable device makers are using Windows DRM right now," Wilson said, "including [set top box] Digital Audio Players and PDAs. Leading content providers are support it, as are major studios and labels. And over 450 million Windows Media Players have been distributed with DRM technology included." If that last line reminds you of Internet Explorer, and the success it saw being bundled with the OS, you're on the right track: The only insidious thing about this technology is the way it's being pushed out as part of Windows.

Windows Media Services 9 in Windows .NET Server
Microsoft's Windows Media Services 9 (WMS 9) is one of the most exciting components in the Windows Media 9 Series line-up, and a major upgrade to the previous version, which shipped as part of Windows 2000 Server. Available only with Windows .NET Server 2003 (all editions except Web Edition), WMS 9 manages and delivers streaming audio and video, or an intranet or the Internet. It provides the server-side implementation of Microsoft's new Fast Streaming technologies, a simple new administrative console that should be welcomed by IT administrators as well as content creators, and new functionality such as Server-Side Playlists, and new scenario-based wizards that, like other similar wizards in Win.NET Server, really take the pain out of accomplishing common tasks.

"Windows Media Services in Windows 2000 was a poor experience in some scenarios," says Troy Batterberry, the Group Product Manager for Windows Media Services. "There was no dynamic [media content] control, limited extensibility, and limited administration capabilities." To fix these issues, Microsoft looked at the core scenarios WMS 9 should tackle, including radio and TV rebroadcasting, advertising, wireless, and enterprise-based scenarios, including e-learning, corporate communications, and enterprise TV. The goal is to deliver the ultimate streaming media experience, one that can compete with terrestrial broadcasts, while providing an industrial strength platform which third parties can extend and build on.

As is so often the case in Win.NET Server, WMS 9 is an optional server component that must be installed separately, generally through the Manage Your Server front-end administrative tool (Figure). To add WMS 9, simply choose Add or remove a role: This launches the Configure Your Server Wizard, where you select which server role you'd like. WMS 9 is identified as Streaming media server. Then, the correct files are installed via CD-ROM or a network install share and you're returned to the Manage Your Server interface, which now features a new role, Streaming Media Server (Figure).

Managing WMS 9 is a breeze, thanks to the new HTML user interface, which is graphical, simple, and intuitive (Figure). Administrators can also choose to automate and schedule media server tasks using Windows Scripting Host (WSH) and their choice of programming languages, a major feature missing from WMS in Win2000. The WMS 9 administrative console also allows remote administration through the firewall.

Feature-wise, WMS 9 is impressive. It offers various Fast Streaming technologies, including Fast Start, Fast Cache, Fast Reconnect, and Fast Recovery (though it should be noted that these features also require Windows Media Player 9 on the client). You can even control Fast Start, Fast Cache, and other server scalability features through the admin console, using Microsoft's built-in automatic server monitoring tools--which will scale back bandwidth overhead automatically as the number of users increases--or selectively manage bandwidth allocations manually.

One of the coolest new features in WMS 9 is its support for Server-Side Playlists, which are dynamic lists of media content--audio, video, advertisements, whatever--that can be broadcast to clients and then changed on the fly. In previous WMS versions, playlists were client-side only, so if a content supplier wanted to break into a broadcast to report on breaking news or whatever, the server would have to break connections with the clients, who would then need to manually reconnect. Using Server-Side Playlists, however, it's possible--even easy--to insert, move, or delete content in a broadcast playlist, or Publishing Point, and because these changes are dynamic, what the client receives changes immediately (well, almost immediately: The changes occur after the client-side cache is consumed).

Server-Side Playlists (Figure) have numerous applications, as you might imagine. College radio stations and other broadcasters might use them to assemble an afternoon's worth of music and advertisements, for example, including prerecorded station promos and whatnot, and then insert new content, when needed, wherever and whenever they'd like.

Because WMS 9 machines might be managed by administrators or content creators, neither of which probably much understands the other very well, WMS 9 includes a number of scenario-based wizards, for such tasks as creating publishing points, playlists, and so on. Microsoft doesn't get enough credit for this type of work, probably because most administrators choose to go about things the hard way. Heads up, guys: The wizards often think of things you don't.

Interestingly, WMS 9 has been complete for some time and is now being used in production environments, such as MSNBC.com. The product will become available with the RTM version of Win.NET Server, however, which will be launched publicly in early 2003.

Windows Media Software Developer Kit (SDK) 9 Series
Unlike previous versions of Microsoft's Windows Media technologies, Windows Media 9 Series is a fully extensible platform, which is technical way of saying that it's friendly to third party developers who want to add Windows Media technologies to their own products or add functionality to the products Microsoft has already created. To this end, Windows Media 9 Series exposes thousands of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for low-level C++ programmers, as well as numerous higher-level interfaces for content creators. For example, you can build support for WMA and WMV 9 into your applications or digital devices, or add Windows Media 9 digital media playback capabilities to your applications and Web applications.

"What customers have told us is that they want better interoperability between software applications and through to hardware devices as well," said Nick Vicars-Harris, a Program Manager in the Windows Digital Media Division. "We've locked down the audio codec, and now the video codec is locked down as well. We're testing compatibility with third party editing applications now to ensure that they are exposing the latest platform features, and enabling new media types."

Extending the Platform
One of the more interesting parts of the Windows Media 9 Series Reviewers' Workshop was the presentations by Adobe and Anark, two third party software developers that are heavily investing in Microsoft's latest digital media technologies.

Bill Hensler, the Director of Dynamic Media at Adobe ("those are the Adobe products that don't print," he noted wryly), gave an impressive endorsement of and commitment to Windows Media 9 Series, something I hadn't expected from a company ostensibly so closely aligned with Apple Computer. But Hensler was downright effusive in his praise of Windows Media 9, even offering up the following top reasons Adobe loves Windows Media 9 Series:

  • Delivery of high quality video and audio - Finally, fast streaming and state of the art media.

  • Multi-channel sound - DVD audio quality over the web to all of your speakers. Support for this feature will be in future Adobe products.

  • Hi-Definition frame sizes - He-Def quality at DVD bandwidths. "This is a big deal for After Effects moving on," Hensler said. "If you're trying to do comp or proof exchanges with clients, you want to see them at the right frame rate."

  • Improvements in the SDK - Easier updating of the media architecture means faster feature improvements for customers.

  • Now, you can actually edit in Windows Media Video format if you need to.

  • Time code support we actually like. "Unlike QuickTime's time code support, which I hate," Hensler added.

  • Broadcast color spaces and aspects - Better compression and faster results. "Aspects are necessary," he said, "because TV does not have square pixels. So it's correct for broadcast now. Did I say this was important?"

  • Frame level access to media sample, which enables media editing and transfer.

  • Synchronous support - "This is Media when I want it," Hensler said. "Editors are moving to real time effects. Our goal is to squish access to the media and do effects in real time."

Adobe is building support for Windows Media 9 formats into Premiere, After Effects, Live Motion, "players to be named at a later date," and upcoming DVD authoring tools. This includes an add-on for Premiere 6.5, due shortly after Corona ships, that will allow for the import and export of Windows Media 9 formats. There will also be an update to After Effects 5.5. But the most impressive news from Hensler, and this really shows the commitment Adobe is making in Windows Media 9 Series, is that Adobe is moving all of its Dynamic Media training material over to Windows Media 9 formats. "This is a huge deal," he said. "Windows media is it."

Longer term, Adobe will support Windows Media 9 formats in all of its Dynamic Media products, and the company will use Windows Media 9 formats as the interchange file formats of choice for all of its Windows-based products. "In the past, we had to deal with QuickTime to move files back and forth," he said.

As for Anark, I later came to understand that the company's demonstration that day was just a prelude to the Longhorn user interface, though that wasn't discussed that the Reviewers' Conference. Anark develops interactive multimedia applications for the desktop and Web that might, conceptually, be thought of as Flash-like animations with photorealistic video. The Web-based stuff is impressive, but the desktop-based versions--and I think it's safe to say that this is where Longhorn is heading--are unbelievably compelling. The effect is that you're watching a video but can interact with it.

Justin Ebert, the Senior Vice President of Product Development at Anark, discussed Anark Studio 1.5, which the company is now working on. "Prior to Windows Media 9, we couldn't deploy our software inside the media player, which was really the logical place. But there were limitations to the architecture, and you couldn't develop extensions to the player. Windows Media Player 7 and 8 only supported audio, video, skins and visualizations. That was it. Now we have a new extensibility architecture, and we're working heavily with this to deliver a new generation of rich media experiences. The [Windows Media 9] codecs are phenomenal, and we're leverage that capability. It's a new market opportunity for people that would use video compositing software to create interactive experiences."

Anark will also ship Anark Media Experiences for Windows Media 9 this fall, supporting 3D, 2D, video, text, and data all tied together to create interactive presentations. "These are interactive video applications," Ebert said, "interactive Web and corporate presentations, product demos and ads, interactive branding with ad enhancements to streaming media, or enhanced audio with custom visual controls." Anark has done a lot of work creating interactive product tours of various NVIDIA products, as well as a host of other demos, some of which can be seen on the Anark site. As Ebert noted, "[The presentations look like video, but they're interactive. You can examine onscreen elements, and use an After Effects-like environment for creating the content."

Anark's work is visually stunning and an amazing testament to what enterprising third party developers can build on top of Corona.

Delivering Corona
One theme that emerged again and again over the course of the intensive Reviewers' Workshop I attended is that the Windows Media 9 Series products work well on their own, but offer end-to-end integration that makes them work better as a group. "It's a platform," Mike Beckerman, the General Manager of the Windows Digital Media Division said, "one that's been rebuilt from the ground up."

As such, the schedule for delivering Windows Media 9 Series is a little spread out, and it's unlikely that we're going to see pieces of it arrive separately. Microsoft has pledged to deliver Windows Media 9 Series in late 2002, and given that Windows .NET Server 2003--which includes the Windows Media Services 9 component--won't RTM until late 2002, I think it's fair to say that the entire product line will become available in December. Microsoft hasn't committed to any specific date yet, however.

Another interesting aspect to Windows Media 9 Series is how this technology will affect other products from Microsoft. One of the more well-received demonstrations of the Workshop was given by eHome's Joe Belfiore, who showed off Windows XP Media Center Edition, part of new media center PCs that will ship from Hewlett-Packard (HP) and other companies later this month. Belfiore noted that XP Media Center was based on Windows Media 8, because of shipping schedule reasons, but that the combination of XP Media Center and Windows Media 9 Series would give consumers the best overall experience.

"Your Media Center experience gets better with Windows Media 9 Series," Belfiore said, "because you can work with richer forms of content. The playback experience is better, with lossless audio CD rips, 5.1 channel audio tracks, 720p WMV movies with 5.1 sound, Smart Playlists, and so on."

Addressing the Lies: Windows Media 9 Series vs. Apple Computer
Within days of the availability of Windows Media Player 9 public beta on September 6, 2002, Apple Computer launched a bizarre series of attacks on Microsoft's new digital media technologies, in which it labeled Windows Media 9 Series "anti-standards." The attack continued a week later when Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage in Paris for his Apple Expo Paris 2002 keynote address. While Apple fans may be unable to see beyond the cloud of Jobs' infamous Reality Distortion Field, a simple sentence-by-sentence breakdown of his keynote comments about Windows Media 9 Series and its MPEG-4 and AAC competition reveals some amazing gaffs, mistakes, and outright lies. Let's take a look.

Jobs: "The next big open standard is called MPEG-4."
Response: This half-truth only tells part of the story. MPEG-4 is indeed an open standard, ratified by the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA), but unlike other truly open standards, the technology is not free to license. This means that the owner of the MPEG-4 specification, MPEG LA, owns various patents for the technology, which it intends to protect, as a company might do with a proprietary solution, and the company charges other companies to access its technologies. "To come out with very high usage fees undercuts the whole concept of having a standard," Douglas McIntyre, chief executive of On2 Technologies, a video-compression provider, told CNET in February, 2002.

Interestingly, even Jobs understands the importance of a truly open standard, despite the fact that he gives MPEG-4 a convenient pass in this regard. Later in the same keynote, Jobs discusses Apple's implementation of Zero Network Config (itself an open standard), which the company is marketing as "Rendezvous" and releasing as an open standard. Here's how Jobs describes this situation: "We are making [Rendezvous] freely available. It is an open standard. No one owns this because we don't think anyone [emphasis Jobs'] should own a ... standard like this. Just like no one owns TCP/IP." Too bad someone own (and charges fees for) MPEG-4, eh?

Jobs: "[MPEG-4] provides the highest quality out there, and yet provides for very low bandwidth streaming."
Response: This is untrue. As noted previously in this review, Windows Media Audio 9 provides the highest quality audio (streaming or not) out there, at the lowest bandwidth. Likewise, Windows Media Video 9 provides the highest quality video streaming out there, also at the lowest bandwidth.

Jobs: "Everybody is jumping on this standard ... Except for Microsoft, who (sic) is proposing their own proprietary standard, which isn't as good."
Response: Again, Jobs is only telling half the story and lying about the quality of Microsoft's technology. It is incorrect to say that Windows Media 9 Series isn't as good as MPEG-4, because WM 9 Series is better, much better, quality-wise, than MPEG-4. And it's unclear who "everyone" is. The streaming market is dominated by three players, RealNetworks, Microsoft, and Apple Computer, which, frankly, has the smallest market share of the three. RealNetworks will indeed support MPEG-4 in its RealONE Player, but then they are also supporting Windows Media 9 Series as well, and will continue to support their proprietary RealAudio and RealVideo formats. To summarize: Apple is supporting MPEG-4, but not Windows Media Audio and Video (or Real's formats), while Microsoft is supporting WMA and WMV, but not MPEG-4 (or RealVideo/Audio). In other words, Apple's behavior is identical to Microsoft's, except that Apple, of course, chose a less capable technology than Microsoft. I think the customers who actually use these technologies can decide for themselves which format is best.

Jobs: "We'll see which one wins in the marketplace. But if history is any indication, the open standards will win."
Response: History shows open standards winning occasionally and proprietary formats winning other times, so it's unclear how Jobs decided this would be the case. One argument he could have used in defense of MPEG-4, however, is that inferior technology quite often wins the greatest market share. Witness the VHS vs. BetaMax debate, MS-DOS vs. early Macintosh computers, and so on. Using that argument, one might posit that MPEG-4 could indeed have a bright future. But it's potential success is not assured by it being a "standard."

Jobs: "The open standard for audio is called AAC. It's the finest quality audio codec available, and the finest one ever invented to our knowledge. And we're using that as well. That's the MPEG-4 audio standard."
Response: Actually, Windows Media Audio 9 is the finest quality audio codec available today. And AAC is an open standard by the same argument that MPEG-4 video is an open standard.

Jobs: "In addition to that, we've added instant-on streaming. We're the first folks to ship instant-on streaming, and that's built into QuickTime [6] as well."
Response. This is a misdirection, because it's technically true but irrelevant. Apple is indeed the first company to ship an instant-on streaming feature in its media player, but it certainly wasn't the only company working on such technology in 2002 (RealNetworks and Microsoft both released similar and often superior features since Apple released QuickTime 6, and obviously these technologies were in the works for some time). But Apple's solution is a client-only technology. Microsoft's more full-featured technologies work with the server to provide a more integrated solution with better performance. Microsoft also gives you additional features such as Auto Resume.

But the real proof, of course, can be seen in simple demonstrations. In the Paris keynote and on Apple's Web site, MPEG-4 is compared only to original video sources and MPEG-2, while AAC is compared to original CD audio sources and MP3. Microsoft, meanwhile, compares its Windows Media 9 Series technologies to original sources, but also to RealNetwork's and Apple's MPEG-4/AAC formats. Guess which one always comes out on top, and often at substantially lower bit-rates? I have witnessed these demonstrations--from both Apple and Microsoft--firsthand, with my own eyes and ears. And Microsoft's formats are superior. There is just no doubt about it.

Two more final, telling notes: First, Frank Casanova, the Director of QuickTime Marketing at Apple performed an interesting technology demonstration during Job's Paris keynote. He compared a Michelle Branch music video, encoded at 6 Mbps in the "gold standard" MPEG-2 video format, as he called it, to the same video encoded in 2 Mbps MPEG-4. Casanova noted that MPEG-4 delivered virtually identical quality to MPEG-2 in only one-third the bandwidth, which is true. But Microsoft performed a similar feat with Windows Media Video 9, described above, in which the company demonstrated that a 6 Mbps MPEG-4 movie, quality-wise, is comparable to a 2 Mbps WMV 9 movie. Based on what I've seen, it is possible to deliver the quality of a 6 Mbps MPEG-2 stream in just 660 Kbps to 1 Mbps using WMV 9, far smaller than the MPEG-4 solution, and yet with equivalent quality. Add in the low-bandwidth multi-channel sound capabilities of Windows Media 9, and the multitude of other features this platform delivers, and it's no contest. It's not even close.

Second, when Casanova discussed QuickTime 6's instant-on streaming feature, he mentioned that you could "scrub" around the timeline of an MPEG-4 video without any buffering at all. So I tried to do this using the keynote stream, playing in QuickTime 6 Pro on a new iMac, but got buffering every time. In fact, the keynote video buffers when you start it up, restart playing after pausing, or try to move the scrub marker. I find it odd that Apple continues to post new content up its Web site--new switcher ads, trailers, and so, that they created using the old Sorenson codec, and not MPEG-4. Why is virtually none of the content Apple creates for its Web site in MPEG-4 format?

Competition is healthy. But, as always, I feel that companies need to be more honest about the capabilities and features of their products. Apple is failing this test miserably right now.

Conclusions
Well, if you stuck with me this long, it should be obvious that Windows Media 9 Series is a huge win for consumers, enterprises and content creators, a full-featured, end-to-end platform that delivers next generation digital media capabilities far beyond any technology offered by the competition. I wholeheartedly recommend the various tools in the Windows Media 9 Series product suite, and start to get effusive just thinking about the various capabilities we now have thanks to these products. Multi-channel surround sound, true Hi-Definition quality video, advanced streaming capabilities, and a new set of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies that will usher in a coming generation of Internet-based commercial digital media content are just a few of the many advances we will soon take for granted on the Windows platform.

And bravo to the Windows Digital Media Division at Microsoft for getting me reenergized about technology. Sometimes, as I slog through daily life, I lose sight of the reasons I became part of this industry and the things that made me giddy as a child, long ago, about computers and software. Windows Media 9 Series brings it all back in a rush: It's fun, and it's exciting. Spread the word: Computing just got much better.