The relationship between Apple Computer and Microsoft nosedived again over the weekend when Apple responded to Microsoft's recent release of the Windows Media 9 Series with a scathing attack. Calling the product an "anti-standards" release, Apple noted that its own QuickTime 6 technology features compatibility with the already somewhat antiquated MPEG-4 video format, an industry standard of sorts. However, the Windows Media 9 Series video format far surpasses the quality and speed of MPEG-4, and Apple was likely responding to Microsoft's comparison (made at last week's Windows Media 9 Series launch) of Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 and MPEG-4, a comparison that doesn't cast Apple's product in the most positive light. Unfortunately for Apple, its anti-Microsoft attack arrived on the same day as a revealing study that indicates that Apple is in danger of forever losing the education market to Windows-based PCs.
"\[Microsoft\] believes they are so big that they can take away what consumers want," an Apple spokesperson said. "They believe their size and momentum can drive an entire industry in a proprietary direction with technologies built by Microsoft. That direction is very much opposite to where most of the industry is going. We wish Microsoft, like RealNetworks, would follow our lead in adopting and supporting industry standards. What's become very clear is that they \[Microsoft\] have become antistandards--it's not just antistandards, they are turning their back on standards."
However, as Microsoft representatives told me 2 weeks ago, the company made its WMV improvements partly at the request of moviemakers and other content creators, who want to see their productions delivered digitally in high quality and protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. WMV 9 delivers quality far in excess of MPEG-4--indeed, the company says that WMV 9 is capable of High-Definition-quality video with several discrete surround-sound channels--and already supports DRM protection.
Apple, as of yet, offers no such protection. "We agree that rights-managed assets are important to protect people's content," the Apple representative said. "We don't condone people stealing music, so we put in controls in our iPod, for example, that won't allow people to use it as a music shuttle. The DRM that we will pursue will be standards-based. We are actively working on DRM around MPEG-4, but it will be a DRM that is open to everybody, but closed from a security standpoint." Apple had no comment about when such technology would be available, however.
Apple also took issue with other Windows Media 9 Series features, claiming that similar features are already available to Apple customers. Those features include QuickTime's Instant-On functionality, which eliminates streaming buffering, and the iTunes 3 Smart Playlists feature, which automatically generates audio playlists. Windows Media 9 includes a feature called Fast Stream, which Microsoft introduced last December, that also eliminates streaming buffering, although it's an end-to-end solution that includes server and client components, unlike Apple's offering. And Microsoft's product includes features sorely lacking in QuickTime, such as the ability to automatically reconnect to a media server when a connection is lost. As for Smart Playlists, the Microsoft offering is far more powerful than the Apple one. Dubbed Auto Playlists, the Microsoft feature dynamically generates playlists for such topics as new music, favorite music, and least-played music, but also features a visual editor for designing your own autoplaylists (e.g., Elton John songs recorded before 1980 with a personal rating of four stars or more). But, more importantly, Apple is disingenuous when it suggests that Microsoft created the Windows Media 9 Series Auto Playlists feature in the 2 months since Apple released iTunes 3.
Sadly, on the same day that Apple made its public attack on Microsoft, market researcher International Data Corporation (IDC) revealed that Apple has lost significant ground in the education market, one of its few remaining strongholds. Apple, which once commanded more than 50 percent of this market, saw its share fall to 15.2 percent this quarter. Market leader Dell saw its share of the education market leap from 22.6 percent to 34.9 percent in the same time period, giving the company a commanding lead. Dell sells the Windows-based PCs that students are far more likely to find in the workplace, a key purchasing decision for schools now faced with real-world study requirements and dwindling purchasing power. "Windows became established as the de facto standard, \[and\] for a lot of reasons that meant that Windows costs were less," IDC analyst Roger Kay told "MacWorld Magazine" this weekend. "Apple's products are premium priced to begin with; although they have recently modified that, it's too little, too late."