Microsoft Goes High-End

As I write these words, right around the corner from Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and his pals James Cameron, Peter Gabriel, Beatles' producer Sir George Martin, and LL Cool J-Microsoft calls him "a major music artist and film actor"-introduced with typical extravagance the clumsily named Windows Media 9 Series, the technologies formerly code-named "Corona." WM9S is a family of audio/video data-encoding formats and associated encoding, decoding, and transmission software tools, all of which Microsoft believes "can transform how consumers enjoy media and entertainment, how businesses communicate, and how artists can create and reach their audiences."
I couldn't make the Hollywood unveiling, but I was able to get an in-depth preview of the system a couple of weeks earlier. During a visit to Microsoft's sprawling headquarters in Redmond, Washington, I was indoctrinated in WM9S along with a few dozen other technology and computer journalists from around the world. I came away thinking that, for once, Microsoft's claims may not be too exaggerated.

WM9Ss, as shown in the diagram above (lifted directly from a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation), is a vast structure of interacting software packages and data-transmission technologies. (I might be imagining things, but does this diagram have spatial inconsistency like some works by M. C. Escher?) Of particular interest to program creators, as well as hackers and pirates, are the spreading tentacles of Digital Rights Management (the boxes labeled DRM). The basic audio and video encoding and decoding technologies (the yellow "codec" boxes), critical as they are to sound and picture quality, make up a comparatively tiny portion of WM9S.

The audio and video codecs (yellow), though crucial for quality, are a tiny portion of the Windows Media 9 Series.

Fans of multichannel audio will be heartened to learn that the WM9S audio codec is the first Web-media codec capable of multichannel operation-with as many as 7.1 channels! In fact, Microsoft's multichannel encoding has engaged the interests of at least one major artist. By the time you read this, Peter Gabriel's Up will have become the first album released over the Web in 5.1-channel audio. Wake up, purveyors of Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio! Serious competition has arrived, with potentially more channels.

Beyond multichannel, the WM9S codec can also handle high-resolution audio data, with a sampling rate up to 96 kHz and a 24-bit sample "depth." And for ultrapurists, there's even a lossless compression mode that can be used for, among other things, bit-perfect ripping of CD tracks. While the data compression is at best around 2:1, compared with 11:1 for MP3 files encoded at 128 kilobits per second (kbps), it's now feasible to store an entire large CD collection in a computer with absolutely no loss of audio quality-provided the PC has a huge hard drive.

Of great interest to home theater buffs are hints that the new WM9S video codec will be able to encode a movie in HDTV quality (720p widescreen) at data rates that are compatible with the current red-laser DVD technology. While no present-day DVD player would be able to play a WM9S-encoded "HD-DVD," future players could if WM9S decoding software was incorporated in the next generation of DVD-player chips. What's important here is that the rest of the DVD food chain (authoring, mastering, and pressing as well as player design and construction) would need to change very little, compared with what would have to occur to accommodate a blue-laser DVD format.


Check it out: DVD Wars: Episode II
Although I've seen the video codec in operation, WM9S's high-def capabilities have not been widely demonstrated in public, and the WM9S video samples distributed at the Microsoft indoctrination and disseminated on the Web site (www .microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia) are designed only to show the achievement of standard-TV quality over a broadband Internet connection, which it almost manages without artifacts at 750 kbps.

So our formal tests of WM9S technology will have to wait at least until the official public release of the final software. As of early fall, the beta-test encoding and decoding tools were still not suitable for rigorous testing. For example, when I slipped a CD of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony into my Sony Vaio PC running Windows XP, the new 9 Series Windows Media Player attempted to automatically identify it and the tracks it contained. Unlike a number of popular jukebox applications, the new Windows player doesn't use the enormous online Gracenote CDDB music database. Both the RealOne and MusicMatch jukeboxes got it right. Microsoft identified the disc as Beethoven Piano Concertos recorded by completely different artists on a different label! The system clearly needs some refinement.

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