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Streaming Media
Commentary: Will Real's Helix Eclipse Microsoft's Corona?
Posted Sep 1, 2002 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Three streaming media players are generally available on most desktops: Microsoft's Media Player, RealNetworks' RealOne, and Apple's QuickTime. A fourth, Oratrix' GRiNS player, specializes in high-quality support for SMIL. Everyone likes underdogs, especially when they are vendors who tirelessly tout standards-based solutions in the face of vendor lock-out from an arguably monopolist alternative. The antitrust case pressed in part by RealNetworks saw the Windows Media Player bundled with every Wintel desktop, while RealOne and QuickTime were generally available only as multi-megabyte downloads. This effectively made them out of reach to all with slow dial-up lines, unless they were extraordinarily loyal to these non-Microsoft players.

Microsoft's "Corona," its Windows Media 9 Series components, will be available September 4. This series includes new versions of Windows Media Player, Windows Media Audio, and video codecs, Windows Media Encoder, and a new Windows Media Software Development Kit (SDK). An important streaming standard, supported by all but Microsoft, is SMIL, Synchronous Multimedia Integration Language, now at version 2. SMIL, based on XML, facilitates reuse and reassembly of content for time-based multimedia. GRiNS supports SMIL best, but RealOne and QuickTime are also based on SMIL.

Now the equivalent of a blue moon of vulnerability-several blue moons, actually—may be rising for the rarely threatened Microsoft as it attempts to shift its developers from Visual Basic to .NET. The first blue moon may be developer loyalty. Microsoft has always courted developers. The Microsoft-developer symbiosis increased the number of applications for Windows and gave developers a seemingly infinite market. Slowly however, things may be changing. After joking about refrigerators with IP addresses telling you when to order more milk, developers increasingly realize that every IP-addressable device is a target for applications they develop. The key to exploiting those devices is Java. Developers also know that Visual .NET is nobody's first choice for Java—the solution for pervasive application development. At first, Microsoft pointedly excluded support for Java, and only recently—under the antitrust gun—began to support it. SMIL is somewhat like Java in that no single vendor controls it. SMIL adoption—like Java's before it—is slowly but surely gaining mindshare.

Real's open-source Helix may be another blue moon, although Netscape and Apple prove open-source success isn't guaranteed. Announced July 22, Helix is an open, comprehensive platform for creating digital media products and applications for any format, operating system or device—and sports over 1,000 APIs. Open-source is increasingly appealing as an application development platform. After stealing the developer loyalty page from Microsoft's playbook, Real has pressed its "open" approach to further advantage: Helix supports Windows Media as well as QuickTime and its own Real format. And now a third blue moon of vulnerability: Even though many secretly preferred RealOne but had to support Windows Media, Helix now becomes a legitimate choice for IT organizations formerly afraid to lock themselves into RealServer.

Thirty big-name vendors, including HP and Intel, are already Helix community supporters (see Adobe, which has no direct stake in the player game, has chosen "all of the above." Adobe has always given an inside track to QuickTime in its GoLive, Premiere, and LiveMotion products, has worked with Real to provide support for SVG in RealOne, and has just signed an agreement with Microsoft to support Corona. Oratrix' Dick Bulterman says he's "positive on the intent of Helix…and its multiformat structure can be very interesting."

Is there danger lurking no matter who "wins" the player (and server, and file format) battle? Even though a vendor gives away players or light versions of media servers, these are always licensed and portions are often patented. Unlike the old saw "if it's free, you get what you pay for," these products are excellent. Arguably the best SMIL player is GRiNS, and with a list of $95, it is probably betting on the SMIL development market for revenue, not its player. But sooner or later vendor lock-out will occur, and likely "free" will turn to "fee." Still, expect innovative multimedia applications from open-source Helix. If you're the IT type who likes to hedge your bets, consider the server that plays all major digital media.

— Robert J. Boeri

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