Media player upgrades, pacts make Real sense

Macintosh, Microsoft, RealNetworks add bells, whistles

The big three media player developers — Macintosh, Microsoft and RealNetworks — have all announced summer 2000 upgrades to their streaming/downloading software.

RealPlayer 8, RealNetworks latest media player, promises among other things, full-screen VHS-quality video streaming at a data rate of 500 kilobits per second.

Current digital subscriber lines and cable modem subs can easily achieve that rate, nine times faster than a 56K modem, 18 times faster than a 28K modem. In Los Angeles, for example (depending on the user’s distance from telephone switching stations) DSL consumers can get up to 1.5 megabits/second into their home. There are an estimated 3 million DSL or cable modem households nationwide, according to Media Metrix, with another three million expected by year’s end.

A large audience?

Though just about everybody is unhappy with the accuracy of ‘Net ratings, Media Metrix measured 30 million unique users of RealPlayer in March, 18 million of Media Player and nine million of QuickTime. There are currently an estimated 130 million U.S. Web users.

Both RealPlayer 8 (now available) and QuickTime 4.1.2 (which is unveiling an upgrade later this summer) have variable bit-rate (VBR) capability. VBR lets the player dial-down its bandwidth needs depending on the complexity of the video — lots of color and motion needs more bandwidth than a static shot in front of a brick wall.

According to a recent PC Magazine review, VBR “noticeably improves overall quality” with a 56K modem.

“What we’re trying to do is give consumers a dial-tone experience,” says Ben Rotholtz, general manager of systems and productions at RealNetworks. “We’d like people to have the same (level of qaulity) no matter where they are.”

New Features

Among other new bells and whistles, QuickTime’s new player will support MPEG 2 encoding (the same encoding used on DVD releases) and an enhanced capability to encode music three times faster than QT does now.

In what some analysts are seeing as a poke at Microsoft, RealNetworks and Apple announced in late June that RealServer 8, RN’s distrib system, would now support QT-based content. The two also agreed to adhere to the so-called “Ask, Tell, Help” initiative, a sort of Miss Manners for the Internet code which says consumers should be asked when they install software what player they want as their default.

Unwanted changes

In the past, many consumers have been miffed to find that downloaded software changes their default settings without asking or telling them.

For its part, Microsoft has the beta version of its Media Player 6.4 upgrade already downloading to home computers nationwide. Company execs promise the final version of Media Player 7.0 will be available later this summer.

Bearing in mind that listening to the radio is still the most popular use of streaming media, MP 7.0, as with its competitors, promises enhanced CD-quality sound.

“It’s still a multi-player world,” says Geordie Wilson, product manager for MS digital media division. “Most people use two different players a month. We think there’s room for everyone.” That’s the sort of conciliatory tone that would make a Department of Justice lawyer smile.

As a result of a DOJ anti-trust case springing out of Microsoft’s alleged anti-competitive practices, a federal judge has ordered the company split into two parts. But with all the drama, Wilson says no one in his division sits around worrying about what the DOJ’s going to do next.

“On a day-to-day basis we’re trying to build the best digital media technology,” he continues. “We want to give people what they want.”

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