Unstoppable? The Microsoft media juggernaut

Unstoppable? The Microsoft media juggernaut

Summary: Three weeks ago, when I penned my third piece on how Microsoft is very much poised to dominate the media player and authoring landscape (the other two posts are here, and here, and there's also a video of my whiteboard session on the topic), I had no idea what Microsoft had waiting in the wings.  First, its announcement with Philips and second, the launch of the next version of its mobile operating platform (code-named Magneto, but officially Windows Mobile 5.

TOPICS: Windows

Three weeks ago, when I penned my third piece on how Microsoft is very much poised to dominate the media player and authoring landscape (the other two posts are here, and here, and there's also a video of my whiteboard session on the topic), I had no idea what Microsoft had waiting in the wings.  First, its announcement with Philips and second, the launch of the next version of its mobile operating platform (code-named Magneto, but officially Windows Mobile 5.0). Not to mention that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates served notice to Apple and the Podderati (Dan Gillmor agrees that the iPod's runaway success is unsustainable).  After you add it all up -- how deeply entrenched into the global infrastructure (computers, other devices,  telecommunications networks, content providers, etc.) Windows Media already is, what will happen as a result of the Philips announcement, and the Magneto news -- is there any doubt that  Microsoft is not only poised to repeat its successful Windows formula, but that that success will, over the long run,  actually dwarf the company's success with Windows? 

[Update 5/24/2005: In response to a comment on this blog saying the Microsoft is full of FUD on this front, I've compiled a list of deals that shows the reach of Microsoft's influence into the most important gears of the global digital media infrastructure. Also, at the time I updated this, Microsoft's Web site listed 54 PlaysForSure-certified mobile devices (including phones) and eight separate PlaysForSure-certified online content sources (eg: Napster-to-Go).  A PlaysForSure-certified content source assures end users of the sort of seemless integration between the service and Windows Media Player 10 that customers of Apple's Music Store get with iTunes, including application of Digital Rights Management (which in turn provides certain assurances to artists and other content producers)].

OK, you're a doubter. The Podderati will surely eviscerate me for being a Microsoft sycophant. If you want to go into denial,  that's your business.  The facts speak for themselves.  No single company has circled its technology wagons around the digital media universe the way Microsoft has.  It's just a question of when the world finally realizes that Microsoft has already gone in for the kill. This week's announcement from Philips wasn't just a stake in the ground.  It was just another part of a foundation on which Microsoft's media skyscraper will rest.  Philips, in case you hadn't noticed, is a consumer electronics giant. Here, to give you an example of the company's largesse, is Philips standard company description:

Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands (NYSE: PHG, AEX: PHI) is one of the world’s biggest electronics companies and Europe’s largest, with sales of EUR 30.3 billion in 2004. With activities in the three interlocking domains of healthcare, lifestyle and technology and 160,900 employees in more than 60 countries, it has market leadership positions in medical diagnostic imaging and patient monitoring, color television sets, electric shavers, lighting and silicon system solutions.

If some of your consumer electronics devices don't have the Philips brand emblazoned on them, then the chances are still pretty good that  Philips' technology is inside of them. As I've written many times before, if somewhere in the future we find ourselves thrust into new digital monoculture, then the Digital Rights Management (DRM) monoculture won't be far behind. Think of it as a Marvin Hagler one-two combination.  It'll happen so fast in sequence that you won't realize that it was two shots instead of one. From Microsoft and Philips joint press release:


"Philips plans to support Microsoft Windows Media Audio and Video and Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10 (DRM) technology in its Nexperia family of multimedia semiconductors.."

But it isn't until the second half of the announcement that the gravity of the deal really sinks in:

"...for use in digital media receivers, personal video recorders, portable audio players, IP set-top boxes and video phones. Support of Windows Media in Nexperia solutions for in-car entertainment as well as next-generation digital TV systems will follow later in the year."

So, what consumer electronics won't Windows' digital media and DRM platforms be included in? To be fair, the agreement is non-exclusive.  I think this means that if Apple is so inclined, and Philips is amenable to the idea, Philips could include support for Apple's digital media and DRM platforms into its Nexperia semiconductors. I wouldn't hold your breath.  To try to project  how many total physical Windows Media/DRM devices will be shipping into the market annually as a result of this deal, I asked Philips how many such enabled devices would be in the market today, had the announcement been made one year ago.

As it turns out, the different divisions of Philips are so independent and distributed that they couldn't calculate the total in a reasonable amount of time (by my deadline to publish this blog).  Either it's a number so big that it they don't trust  themselves to come up with an accurate calculation, or it's close to zero because there's some sort of apples-to-oranges problem since Nexperia isn't yet embedded into everything it could be. Philips didn't offer any clarity.  But does it matter? Looking at how big the company is and how many different types of devices it makes that are candidates to include digital media and DRM technology (should we include razors?), my sense is that because of the Philips deal alone (forget everywhere else  Microsoft's media and DRM technologies have already turned up), Microsoft just ate Apple for lunch.

The Podderati will say "No way. The iPod/iTunes juggernaut has too much momentum to be overcome."  Or, the Mac cognescenti will tell me not to quit my day job citing all those years that Apple was supposedly waiting for the last nails to be driven into its coffin, only to rise to greatness. Tell that to my 14-year-old son who only four months ago was begging me for an iPod Photo for Christmas. He got one. It was a total image buy.  Now he looks at the iRiver H320 that I'm testing (photo-capable) and tells me "That thing is so sick!"  Sick, in case you haven't gathered by now, is 15 on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being "I wouldn't be caught dead with that."

Although it isn't perfect, Microsoft's PlaysForSure program was really a defining moment in Microsoft's Media/DRM history. The secret sauce that turned the iPod/iTunes combination into a drug was how easy it was and the fact that finally, we could all buy one song at a time.  But now, not only do PlaysForSure-based devices do the synchronization thing as well as the iPod and iTunes do, but Microsoft has created an ecosystem where device manufacturers like iRiver and Creative are competing over how sick a device they can make at the same time that that online music stores can compete to deliver Microsoft DRM-managed
audio into those devices. Now, with the Philips deal, the number of devices are going to shoot into the stratosphere.  On top of that, the days of buying one song at a time for 99 cents are over.  At first Napster and Real appeared on to something with their $15 per month all-you-can eat programs.  But now, at $7 per month for the same thing, Yahoo saw to it and we haven't seen bottom yet.  

Still not convinced? Although the news wasn't nearly as important as the Philips announcement, the Magneto release is pretty significant too. Magneto -- aka Windows Mobile 5.0 -- will go out the door fully enabled with PlaysForSure technology. In addition, in support of its media ambitions, the operating system is much better equipped to support hard drives.  Translation: An operating system that's optimized to support a device that has both a hard drive and a wide area network connection (ie: something that can connect to a 3G EDGE or EV-DO network like those from T-Mobile, Cingular, Verizon Wireless, or Sprint) built into it.   In other words, a device with gobs of storage that can connect to the Net for voice, streaming or downloaded audio, and streaming or downloaded video.  Invariably, I hear "Video on a handheld?  Who on Earth would want to do that?"  Answer: Plenty of people. 

Example: At IDG World Expo's Syndicate conference in NYC last week, after I mentioned the monoculture issue while sitting on a panel, a woman from a very prominent scientific periodical came up to me and  said, "we need to make video available on handhelds.  What platform do you recommend?"  In my head, the technology choices are MPEG-4 [the authoring tools are lacking], Macromedia's Flash [mobile version exists, but that's about it], Quicktime [not in iPods yet], Real [same predicament as Flash], and Windows Media.  I shot back with the question "What's most important? Hitting the biggest possible audience target or support for a specific technology?"  (Maybe everyone in her target is on the Mac.) Her answer: Biggest target.   My answer: Windows Media.  Unlike the other four, where the question in the back of your mind will always be "How can I go right?," the question with Windows Media (if you're a content producer looking to hit the biggest target) is "How can I go wrong?" 

Topic: Windows

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  • IBM films showcased the differences

    A few years ago when IBM was producing some mini-movies with some relatively big movie stars, they distributed their films in three 300 kbps formats (Real, Quicktime, and Windows Media). In every case, the Windows Media format was the clear winner.

    What I?m going to be looking for is the HIMAT capable DVD players that will be able to play High-Definition Windows Media format.
    • Duh, I meant BMW films

      I keep mixing the two up :(. IBM, BMW, sounds the same.
    • Blu-Ray and HDDVD

      And the last I read, both standards, Blu-Ray and HDDVD, have both agree to include the MS Windows Media codecs in their technologies along with other of course. So no matter which one of these technologies comes out on top over the next 3-5 fives years, MS is guranteed a plate at the table. As the author notes, it would be a very bad bet against MS' DRM protected media technologies not to skyrocket through the roof during this period, given the pervasive nature of Windows. I haven't read much about the OS Linux community putting the sort of focus on DRM that MS and Apple have which very well could become a major imediment to Linux's adoption at the consumer level.
    • Format is key.

      As Sony et al know, after an initial competition only one format dominates.

      I'm wondering whether the wma/v formats are good enough for the full range of products.

      Sound is the only one I'm familiar with. Even mp3, which is old, seems better to me than wma. But maybe Microsoft has been emphasizing smaller file sizes to such an extent that they're exaggerating when they list equivalents.

      And maybe, too, Microsoft's embrace of DRM has given them an insuperable advantage. There's a difference between accepting the necessity of DRM and advancing it.

      Format can produce substantial revenues for Microsoft despite what they have to give away.

      Comments appreciated.
      Anton Philidor
      • MP3 better than WMA?

        By what benchmark? Have you ever compared a 64 kbps MP3 to a 64 kbps WMA? There is a pro version of MP3 that is now closer to WMA, but the original MP3 (MPEG1-Layer3) standard is obsolete as far as quality per kbps is concerned.

        If you doubt what I say about the video codecs, go to BMWfilms.com and do the comparison of Real vs Quicktime vs Windows Media video.
        • You are spot on George...

          Blow away all the "MS hate" and the fact is they have better formats than anything else out there.
          • What have you been smoking?

            MS hate actually is good for you!
            Reverend MacFellow
        • 64 kbps??

          That's what I thought you might be implying.

          My standard rip is for mp3 is 224. I don't use a high quality sound system with my computer. For rip to burn I use wma lossless. Maybe about as good as APE.
          MPC is not much better than Mp3 on most computer sound equipment.

          128 or equivalent in any codec is about the same as standing outside the concert hall with your ear pressed to the bricks.

          64 is acceptable only when the most important attribute is the ability to stream efficiently. And that's useful for things like news where quality of sound doesn't matter.

          Anyway, I was thinking about the sound of wma when you care about the sound.
          Anton Philidor
          • You still don't get it?

            The point is, if WMA is better than MP3 at 64 kbps, it will be better at 256 bits. The fact of the matter is, I've heard 128 kbps MP3s that sound better than 256 kbps MP3s depending on the encoder that you use. There are some really horrible quality "high speed" codecs out there.

            The professionally encoded 160 kbps WMA files that you can buy are really good quality.
          • Okay.

            If someone bases an argument on a piece of information I don't have, I check on it.

            So, if you say that the 160 wma's are really good, I'll listen.

            Difficult to find any reviews of codecs going above 128, and for wma in particular.

            Easier to discuss with Yagotta, who wrote:

            There will always be something else, because the sound quality from WMA is crappy. You're never going to see WMA accepted in quality audio circles, period.


            Anyway, ripping with CDex or EAC (CD's that have been around for a while) using LAME latest gives good results.
            I'll sacrifice file size to universality.
            Anton Philidor
          • LAME is anything but lame

            LAME is a really good encoder for MP3s, but I mostly use Windows Media Encoder 9 to do my videos and audio files. My friend has an HDDV Cam, so I'm trying to do the new Windows Media 720P HiMAT format. Since it's only 10 mbps, you can fit about 60 minutes on to a regular single density DVD.
        • Better to compare AAC to WMA

          AAC is the audio standard for MPEG-4 (based upon Quicktime from Apple). Comparing MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer 3) to WMA is sort of pointless as MP3 is fairly old.

          From the MPEG-4 AAC Standard site (mostly licensing stuff):

          [i]Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is a wideband audio coding algorithm that exploits two primary coding strategies to dramatically reduce the amount of data needed to convey high-quality digital audio. First, signal components that are "perceptually irrelevant" and can be discarded without a perceived loss of audio quality are removed. Next, redundancies in the coded audio signal are eliminated. Efficient audio compression is achieved by a variety of perceptual audio coding and data compression tools, which are combined in the MPEG-4 AAC specification.

          The MPEG-4 AAC standard incorporates MPEG-2 AAC, forming the basis of the MPEG-4 audio compression technology for data rates above 32 kbps per channel. Additional tools increase the effectiveness of AAC at lower bit rates, and add scalability or error resilience characteristics. These additional tools extend AAC into its MPEG-4 incarnation (ISO/IEC 14496-3, Subpart 4).

          The MPEG-4 AAC patent license grants rights for multiple MPEG-4 AAC Object Types, including AAC LC (Low Complexity), AAC LTP (Long-Term Prediction), AAC Scalable, and ER AAC LD (Low Delay).
          A copy of the MPEG-4 Audio standard can be purchased from the ISO online store (search for "14496-3").[/i]

          AAC this part of an ISO standard, which WMA is not.

          WMA consists of 5 codecs, thus it is not likely to be a standard but rather will be replaced when Microsoft decides that it is time to churn the consumer base. The codecs consist of (From: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/9series/codecs/audio.aspx)

          [b]Windows Media Audio 9[/b]
          Enjoy sound quality that is 20 percent better than the state-of-the-art Windows Media Audio 8. New support for variable-bit-rate (VBR) audio ensures higher quality and smaller file sizes. You can store more music than ever before on your computer, CD-R, or one of more thn 120 Windows Media?compatible devices. Windows Media Audio 9 is backward-compatible with earlier Windows Media Audio?compatible decoders, so that you can play new content in earlier players, operating systems, and electronic devices.

          [b]Windows Media Audio 9 Professional[/b]
          The Web's first digital surround-sound codec, Windows Media Audio 9 Professional, is a great match for high-fidelity hardware and computer with 5.1 channel surround sound. It captures full-resolution audio (24-bit/96-kHz sampling) in stereo or 5.1 channel (and even 7.1 channel) surround sound for streaming or download-and-play delivery at 128 to 768 Kbps. Instead of 128 Kbps stereo MP3 files, you can enjoy 5.1 channel audio with superior fidelity at the same bit rate.

          If you want to play a file by using the new 5.1 channel, 24-bit, 96 kHz sampling capabilities, but do not have a system or sound card that supports multichannel or high resolution sound, playback will seamlessly fold down (for example, to 16-bit 2-channel stereo) so that you get the best playback experience the systems can provide.

          [b]Windows Media Audio 9 Lossless[/b]
          This is a great codec to use for archiving your CD collections. You can copy tracks from CDs into this lossless format for efficient storage. Then you can transfer the tracks to Windows Media Audio 9?based CDs for playback.

          [b]Windows Media Audio 9 Voice[/b]
          Need to encode radio broadcasts, advertising, eBooks, or voiceovers? Until now, low-bit-rate codecs were optimized for either music or voice, but this first-ever mixed-mode voice and music codec offers superior quality for low-bit-rate streaming (less than 20 Kbps).

          [b]Windows Media Audio 9 VBR[/b]
          VBR mode means a lower average bit rate and file size are needed for optimal sound quality. Although some portions of a track may contain a lot of data and be harder to compress, other portions contain relatively little data and require fewer bits. Quality is optimized by detecting which sections are most difficult to compress and allocating more bits where they are needed most. VBR can be applied to both Windows Media Audio 9 and Windows Media Audio 9 Professional codecs. The Windows Media Audio 9 Lossless codec is always VBR. For low bit rate streaming and devices such as CD and DVD players, you can use a peak-constrained mode.

          You have to draw your own conclusions from this.
        • DivX is much better than WMV

          After much editing and encoding, I determined that WMV was
          totally lousy, and that DivX gives rendition pretty similar to
          MPEG2 taking 10 times the space.
          (I was using media player 9 by the way, so I wasn't using an old
          Vorbis Theora and Ogg seem to be excellent formats. The sound
          and video look great to me, with very competitive bitrates. And
          they are totally free of patent/copyright restriction.
          • and for sound, MP3 has won already

            Pretty much everyone uses MP3 these days.
            It may be technically inferior (so what, it's older).

            but it's GOOD ENOUGH TECHNOLOGY, from the school of VHS
            over Betamax and PS/2 over XBOX.
  • I'm convinced.

    I'm convinced I was just scammed into reading an advertisment.
    • Some peole refuse to read the writing on the wall.

      Apparently your one of them.
      • perhaps because there's nothing written there YET..

        Eh, mi amigo?
        Jeff Spicoli
        • Really??? See David Belinds post, "Where's the FUD?"

          Sorry but you are dead wrong on this one.
          • meaningless

            Signing deals with content companies does not guarantee that you are going to own a market. NOTHING has happened YET. Therefore, the writing has yet to be written, grasshoppa.
            Sorry, but there is no truly reliable way to accurately account for the future, hence, I am not wrong in the slightest bit.
            Feel free though to postulate to your heart's content..
            Jeff Spicoli
          • Some people refuse to read the writing on the wall.

            And they often wonder why they are so lost when it all comes down.