Last night at the Hollywood and Highlands Complex in Los Angeles, Microsoft unveiled the beta 1 release of Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 and the other products that make up Windows Media 9 Series (code-named Corona). The event highlighted the improvements that Microsoft has made to its core digital-media products, and the company is offering, for the first time, theatre-like audio and video experiences on the PC.
The primary component in this push is WMP 9, which offers a host of improvements to the WMP version that shipped with Windows XP, although this new version is available for all modern Windows versions, including XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows 98, and Windows 98 SE. With new features such as Smart Jukebox, an almost infinitely configurable UI, and support for new Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 and Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 codecs, WMP 9 is the most advanced and feature-laden media player available on any platform.
"Windows Media Player 9 Series opens the door to the great new experiences enabled by the Windows Media 9 Series platform," said Will Poole, vice president of the Windows Digital Media Division. "We designed our new player for both the typical user who just wants an easier, faster, and more flexible experience, as well as the audiophile who demands the highest-possible recording and playback quality."
Windows Media competitor RealNetworks attempted to hijack Microsoft's unveiling of Windows Media 9 Series by releasing a new version of its Helix server software, which streams Windows Media audio and video content using a reversed-engineering process that bypasses Microsoft's licensing for the Windows Media technology. RealNetworks' CEO Rob Glaser says that his company's Helix Universal Server software eliminates the need to set up several servers to support different media formats because it plays back the most dominant formats on the Web--those that Microsoft and RealNetworks own.
A Microsoft representative told me, however, that Helix lacks numerous features in Windows Media Services 9, the Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003 component that supplies Windows Media content. For example, although Helix supports an instant-on streaming experience, RealOne users must pay monthly fees to use that service. In addition, Helix lacks Fast Cache, which supplies an always-on streaming experience; Fast Reconnect, which lets players automatically recover from lost server connections; scenario-based management wizards for easy administration; dynamic server-side playlists; and other features.