As part of a continuing look at some of the intriguing new features in Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server), I want to examine Microsoft Windows Media Services (WMS), which the company has updated significantly in this release of Windows Server, and the reasons why organizations might transmit digital media content throughout the enterprise. I'm often amazed by the resistance I see to the idea of enterprise-based digital media, despite the fact that the rise of commodity computers and broadband Internet connections has led to a raft of geographically dispersed businesses and telecommuters and frequent travelers that rarely show up, physically, at corporate offices. You can save time and money by using streaming media to deliver important corporate information, especially if you use the technologies available for free with Windows server and desktop versions.
Microsoft does, however, face competition in the enterprise digital media market. Both RealNetworks and Apple Computer offer viable players and server products aimed at enterprise users, although the products come with various price, availability, and performance caveats. But the real value of the Windows platform—Microsoft might call this its "richness"—has always been the amount of free technology that you get in the box. And in the case of WMS technologies, the digital media wares are surprisingly high quality, often technically better than the alternatives.
Win.NET Server includes the awkwardly named Windows Media Services 9 for Windows .NET Server. Set for release only as part of Win.NET Server Standard Edition and later (but not Web Server Edition or previous Windows Server versions), this new WMS version includes support for Fast Streaming, which essentially eliminates buffering on broadband connections; dynamic content programming so that you can insert advertisements, music, breaking news, and other content into a live server-side playlist at any time; better scalability and reliability than previous versions; and a friendly new administration console that even media-wary administrators can comfortably use. (Likewise, content creators who aren't necessarily current on administration matters will find the console easy to use, as well.) Win.NET Enterprise Edition and Win.NET Datacenter Edition also include multicast content-delivery functionality, cache and proxy server support, and other unique high-end features.
So what type of content might you want to deliver with such a system? Speeches by CEOs and other executives are an obvious answer, as are corporate training videos, which you can enrich through an HTML/streaming media combination such as the one Microsoft Producer, a free add-on for PowerPoint 2002 users, offers. Even if you haven't seen this tool, you've probably seen some of the Web-based training sessions it creates. The resulting Web page generally features a small video window featuring the presenter and a larger display of the PowerPoint presentations. Enterprises can deliver such Web-based presentations live, but usually the company stores them on a server and delivers them on demand. These Web-based training sessions can be effective teaching tools, retaining much of the impact of a live presentation without the expense, time, and travel downsides.
By making the editing, encoding, and distribution tools easy to use and low cost (well, free), Microsoft gives enterprises the ability to develop content in-house, again saving money. And enterprises that roll out this kind of solution don't necessarily want to touch every desktop, so the WMS solution works with Windows Media Player (WMP) 7 and later, which is available on all modern Windows versions, and any other third-party players that support Microsoft's formats. And content delivered over the Web is accessible to remote users over lower quality connections, say, for employees on the road or at offsite locations.
On the client side, Microsoft is working to improve WMP, and the results will show up by year-end in WMP 9, although a beta will be available September 4. This player adds client-side support for the WMS Fast Streaming feature and the new Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) Series 9 codecs, although WMP 7.x and Media Player for XP (MPXP) will be upgradeable to support the codecs, as well. And unlike MPXP, the new player will be available for the most recent Windows versions, including Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, and Windows 98 SE. . I'll have more information about the player and its new enterprise features after the September 4 beta release.
Digital media gets little consideration by many enterprise decision makers and administrators these days, but with the advances we'll see in Win.NET Server and WMP, the technology will reach the point at which many Microsoft-oriented shops—especially those with dispersed workforces—need to consider this option as a way to keep employees up to date without requiring costly travel and time management. If you're deploying or considering any unique corporate-oriented digital media rollouts, please drop me a line. I'm very interested to hear what you're working on.