US Report: Is WebTV a puppet in Microsoft standards war?

Is Microsoft trying to shut competing technologies out of WebTV? That's the question on the lips of observers who note that Microsoft's set-top box service has grown very quiet about supporting Java and RealMedia.

WebTV Networks originally planned to add support for Java, a cross-platform programming language created by Sun. The company also used to regularly update WebTV support for new versions of RealMedia, an audio/video technology promulgated by RealNetworks Inc.

But since its purchase by Microsoft, WebTV has basically stopped talking about Java, and this week publicly said it had no plans to support current versions of RealMedia. WebTV users can only see content generated for RealPlayer 3.0, which is about a year old.

WebTV did not respond to repeated calls for comment. Microsoft declined to comment for this story.

Industry analysts downplayed WebTV's decaffeinated attitude toward Java, pointing out that there are plenty of other reasons Java might not be suitable for a set-top box.

But they said the lack of support for RealMedia -- a popular technology that delivers audio and video designed for low-bandwidth connections -- doesn't make sense for a television-based platform.

"WebTV has been consistent in supporting multimedia formats that have made sense in television," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Anybody that doesn't support RealMedia is making a big mistake."

Observers are taking a close look at WebTV's manoeuvres, since Microsoft is currently in court defending itself against charges that it unfairly tried to put competitors out of business, using its control over another platform -- the industry-standard Windows operating system.

RealNetworks says about 320,000 sites use RealMedia technology, half of them generating content with the latest version of the software, know as G2. Meanwhile, WebTV's 3.0 player, its latest, can't play content from RealMedia 4.0, 5.0 or G2.

While Microsoft has been accused of trying to wipe out Java by other means, including building its own version of the technology, WebTV has said that supporting Java would be unrealistic for its set-top box, which is a stripped-down computer that sells for about $200.

Java would require more memory and faster performance, adding as much as 10 per cent to the product's price, Web TV representatives say.

Industry analysts said that WebTV's reasons are the same that have led many Internet sites to strip Java out of their pages: It's simply too slow for many users.

"Microsoft is not the first to remove Java from its products," said Steve Oldenberg, an analyst at Zona Research Inc. "I wouldn't be surprised if issues of performance and standardization more directly affected their decision."

Still, other set-top box makers, including Hitachi Ltd., have announced that their products will include Java support.

All the same, analysts said it's harder to see why WebTV wouldn't upgrade its RealMedia support.

Microsoft makes a competing technology, called Windows Media Player, but observers agree that RealNetworks controls 80 to 90 per cent of the market for what is called 'streaming media'.

"I don't know why they wouldn't support RealMedia. But they can't limit their support to only Microsoft technology, or the US will be knocking on their door," said analyst Oldenberg.

WebTV, which did not return repeated calls for comment, has denied that its parent company influenced its decision to put off upgrading the RealMedia software, citing instead the high costs of integrating new software into the operating system.

But, with set-top boxes for everything from Internet telephony to cable-modem Internet access to interactive TV in the works, some observers suggest that the set-top market will change so much in the next few months that it matters little whether one piece of hardware supports a particular feature.

"They're disadvantaging themselves if they want to supply a good experience," said Russell Braun, general manager of strategic products for RealNetworks. "If they're marketing the product as an Internet appliance, it's a handicap if their users can't play back all the content on the Internet. They're going to have some complaints if they can't support RealMedia."

If the underlying question behind the WebTV turmoil is whether Microsoft is preparing to push competitors out of the set-top box market, the real answer might be that it might not yet matter what Microsoft does. While WebTV is an early player in the set-top device market, it can hardly be considered the market leader.

"It's early in the game," said Zona's Oldenberg. "WebTV is one piece of hardware in an underdeveloped market. If it does emerge as the dominant player in the set-top environment, RealNetworks will have to make Microsoft aware of its concerns."

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