Comdex '99: Microsoft trumpets MP3 alternative

New announcements designed to push Windows Media Audio format for next-generation music

Microsoft announced a host of deals and partnerships at Comdex Tuesday around its Windows Media Audio (WMA) digital music format.

The deals with both technology and content providers highlight Microsoft's increasingly aggressive foray into the online entertainment arena.

It is by no means certain whether the SDMI (Secure Digital Music Initiative), the music industry's digital music consortium, will come down in favour of one official format. But Microsoft is ensuring that its offering is in a prime position to compete with Liquid Audio and MP3 for that possible position. In a shameless effort to catch the organisation's eye, Microsoft showed the first live demonstration of a song in WMA on an SDMI capable portable device, Diamond's third-generation Rio 500 player.

The player has had a BIOS patch to support the format and incorporates Microsoft's Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. DRM allows secure transfer of WMA files. A spokesman for Diamond said that Microsoft's commitment to WMA was good new for the industry as a whole: "The more quality standards there are out there the more choice there will be for the SDMI."

Crucial in the development of online multimedia distribution is the support of the major record labels and content providers. Microsoft has scored critical points for its Windows Media format with a raft of announcements concerning downloadable and streaming media. EMI Records has committed to delivering around 5000 music videos in Windows Media format. BMG has announced that it will provide audio and video from two of its artists in the format at the Windows Media site each month, and there are similar agreements with other major content providers.

Cutting such deals may give WMA an edge over the MP3 format. The majority of the MP3 music available on the Internet is from unknown bands. The support of major players in the music industry for WMA might mean that consumers have no choice of format if they wish to purchase tracks from major artists.

Microsoft's format received more major league support with the announcement that Sony has agreed to collaborate on the interoperability between DRM and OpenMG, Sony's proprietary copyright protection technology. Sony has also said that it will support WMA, along with its own ATRAC3 format, in its upcoming Vaio Music Clip player and its Memory Stick Walkman.

In more good news for Microsoft, a new report from technology research firm PC Data Online shows that Microsoft's Windows Media Player is experiencing faster growth than Real's RealPlayer. Recently Real has been slamming Microsoft in the battle for control of the online media player.

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For full coverage, see the Comdex '99 Special Report .