Microsoft releases Windows Media 9

You might not have heard — Microsoft put their announcements up against Macworld, with the predictable result that they were mostly lost in the hubbub — that Windows Media 9 has been released. Interestingly, Microsoft is emphasizing licensing as much as or more than technology.

Technology-wise, Windows Media 9 includes Fast Streaming, 5.1 channel sound support in their audio codec, and a better player. With Fast Streaming, the media server streams video and audio to your computer as fast as your connection will allow, giving you an “instant on” streaming experience when the data rate of the stream is significantly lower than the speed of your broadband connection. It’s nice, but both QuickTime and RealSystem include similar functionality.

Licensing-wise, the big news is that it’s possible to license (1) the Windows Media Video codec, (2) the Windows Media Audio code, (3) the ASF file format and (4) Microsoft’s proprietary streaming protocols for non-Microsoft operating systems for the first time. (Is it just me, or do the pricing details in the press release seem a little defensive?)

…unit pricing for Windows Media Video 9 (WMV 9) on devices and non-Windows platforms is 10 cents per decoder, 20 cents per encoder and 25 cents for both encoder/decoder. By comparison, MPEG-4 video is more expensive, with a unit price for decoder, encoder and encoder/decoder licensing of 25 cents, 25 cents and 50 cents, respectively. There is also a significant content use fee for MPEG-4, while there are no content use fees for the Windows Media Audio and Video codecs.

Of course, the press release doesn’t note that using MPEG-4 gives you a choice of vendors and annual caps on codec royalties, and that content providers with less than 50,000 subscribers don’t pay anything.

So what does it all mean? It means that Microsoft is now reacting to market pressures created by standards-based streaming on the one hand and RealNetworks’ proprietary but open-source solution on the other. It means that Microsoft is no longer tying the success of Windows Media to the success of Windows in any given market, which (for example) creates the possibility of Windows Media doing well in the wireless device market even though Microsoft’s small-device OSs will not dominate there like Windows does in the PC market.

Finally, in a interesting display of Stockholm Syndrome, a distressingly high percentage of Linux users posting to Slashdot were excited about the possibility that someone might license Microsoft’s code in order to create a “real” Linux player for Windows Media. One gets the feeling that folks that desperate for Microsoft to legitimize their OS might be happier just wiping their hard drives and installing Windows XP. | InfoWorld story | story | Microsoft PR: “Final Release of Windows Media 9 Series Starts Next Wave of Digital Media”