Microsoft sharpens video strategy

Graphics card manufacturers ATI Technologies and NVidia will build support for the next-generation Media Player into upcoming graphics cards.

Graphics card manufacturers ATI Technologies and NVidia will build support for the next-generation Media Player into upcoming graphics cards. Both say they will support Microsoft's "Corona," which will deliver high-definition video playback to PCs.

Corona is Microsoft's souped-up software engine for compressing and decoding video, and is the core of the next version of Media Player, which is expected at the end of 2002. Corona will help produce video images as sharp as high-definition television images, according to Michael Aldridge, lead product manager for Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division. He says Corona will provide a video quality improvement of 20 percent over Windows Media 8, largely through the new codecs. Corona video reportedly can also be compressed to half the size of current standard MPEG-2 video (which is used for DVD and digital cable TV set-top boxes).

The end result is higher-quality video, as well as much-improved streaming video. Microsoft says a related Corona technology called Fast Stream will enable digital files to be delivered over high-speed internet connections without the use of buffering.

Hefty Hardware

But to take advantage of the video improvements, you'll need at least a 1.4-GHz Pentium-4 PC running the Windows XP operating system, as well as either the ATI or NVidia graphics card, Aldridge says. Lesser PCs will display less-significant improvements in video quality.

Graphics-card support is important: The processor-intensive job of decoding video for playback is handled by the video card, which uses Microsoft's Direct X technology, Aldridge adds.

Improved video and audio formats may not seem like a milestone, but they are crucial to both media and technology companies. A standards battle is brewing between competing video standards, including RealNetworks Inc., Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime, and the latest industry standard, MPEG-4.

Microsoft hopes to provide an attractive alternative, which would give the company ties to media distribution as well as the opportunity to push its technology beyond the PC to DVD players and emerging digital video playback devices like the TiVo digital video recorders.

Still a Contest

One skeptic of Microsoft's approach is graphics expert Peter Glaskowski, senior editor of Microprocessor Reports.

"I don't see how the industry benefits from more proprietary formats," says Glaskowski. He argues that competing industry-standard codecs, like MPEG-4, work similarly and are just as good.

As part of its pitch, Microsoft says its Corona video standard will be more secure than current DVD encryption, which has been hacked. Because Corona encryption technology is "renewable" through downloaded updates, Microsoft can change its digital lock to stop people from copying protected video content.

Microsoft says it has released the Corona media platform, including a software development kit for developers and its server software, to beta testers.

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