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Windows Media "Corona" Preview

  Windows Media "Corona" Preview
Next generation Windows Media Technologies are coming in 2002

Microsoft introduced "Corona," its next generation of Windows Media technologies, at the Streaming Media East 2001 conference in New York, but because of the surprise early birth of my second child, Kelly, I wasn't able to attend. So I got a Corona demonstration a month later at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, and came away impressed. Here's what I found out.

Background: Where we've been, where we're going 

Still from a  Windows Media Audio Professional demo movie that rocked the house during Bill Gates' CES 2002 keynote address.

With the increased emphasis on consumer oriented digital media tasks at Microsoft, the Windows Media division has become increasingly important to the software giant's image. It's Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) codecs are widely acknowledged as being superior to any and all competition, and consumer acceptance increased dramatically in 2001 as CD players, car stereos, and DVD players were added to the ranks of portable audio players that already support the formats. Microsoft notes that Windows Media-compatible devices are the most often used of any players, with over 350 million units sold.

In a general sense, digital media is everywhere, and the market is experiencing explosive growth in a variety of categories. On the PC, numerous audio/video players exist, including AOL Winamp, Apple QuickTime Player, MusicMatch, Microsoft Windows Media Player, RealONE, and others. Portable and mobile audio players are also popular, including devices from ROM-based devices from SonicBlue Rio, hard drive-based units such as Apple's iPod, car stereos from Aiwa and others, Pocket PC devices, and even cell phones. Home-based units haven't really taken off yet, but 2002 might be the year: In this category, Rio Digital Audio Receivers and set-top boxes from Compaq, HP and others have been joined by the Xbox, Ultimate TV, and other similar devices.

Enter, Corona, Stage Right
To address these expanding markets, Microsoft is creating a next-generation Windows Media platform, code-named Corona. Microsoft says that it hasn't settled on a final name yet, but that they'd prefer that I didn't refer to it as Windows Media version 9, though that's what it is (Windows Media 8 client bits shipped with Windows XP last October; there were no Windows Media 8 server bits). What they will tell me is that the codecs might be updated significantly, which would require player upgrades. This contrasts to Windows Media 8, which didn't require such an upgrade. Whatever happens, the company expects Corona to deliver 20 percent better efficiency on audio and video performance when compared to Windows Media 8.

Corona will include upgrades to all of Microsoft's digital media products. These include:

New Windows Media Server - The Corona Windows Media Server will ship with Windows .NET Server in late 2002, and is currently the only component that's publicly available for testing (as of late January 2002). I'll cover this in more detail below.

New Windows Media Player - When Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP, once known as Windows Media Player 8) shipped, there was no corresponding upgrade for Windows 98, Me, NT 4.0 or 2000. This won't be the case with Corona, when all of these platforms will see a freely downloadable player arrive. The Corona player I saw visually resembled MPXP with just some small tweaks, but that's likely to change by the time it ships.

New Windows Media Audio and Video formats - Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) will be upgraded with Corona. There will also be something called WMA Pro, which will offer 24-bit resolution and 6 channels (or more) of discrete sound for surround sound capabilities. WMA Pro is actually a totally different codec from WMA; Microsoft says that each codec will be used for specific purposes.

New Windows Media Encoder - Currently locked at version 7.1 (which supports the version 8 codecs), the Windows Media Encoder (WME) is designed for content providers who need to convert audio and video into streamable formats. A new version of this graphical tool will ship in the Corona timeframe.

New Windows Media Software Development Kit (SDK) - Designed for applications developers or other third parties that want to integrate Windows Media technologies into their applications, the Windows Media SDK version 7 provides a suite of components, tools, and documentation. This, too, will be upgraded for Corona.

Windows Media Server "Corona"
Not much of this is available yet, but Microsoft is showing off the Windows Media Server bits, which are available in Windows .NET Server Beta 3. This product includes the following components:

Fast Stream
Essentially delivering an "always on" experience, the Fast Stream feature provides "bufferless streaming" by taking full advantage of a broadband connection and stuffing the Corona player's cache full while bandwidth is high; this allows the stream to keep playing if the connection goes south. The net effect is what we expect from TV: The video starts up immediately and just keeps playing without any hiccups.

"With today's player, it doesn't matter how big the user's data pipe is," Jonathan Usher, the Group Product Manager for Microsoft's Digital Media Division told me at CES. "But with Corona, there's virtually no buffering at all. Buffering makes people want to do something else. An "instant-on' experience is delivered by Corona." Note that Corona technology must be present on the server and the client for this to work, however.

Providing a graphic example of Fast Stream's capabilities, Usher started a video stream to a Corona player and then yanked the network cable from the client PC. Because Fast Stream was pumping the client cache full of data while the connection was still good, the video didn't stop playing, or even hiccup as the network connect was unplugged. "It's a TV-like experience," Usher said.

Server-side Playlists
Server-side playlists are another huge benefit to content providers, as this features makes it possible to add or remove content from media streams on the fly. "This is a first ever capability in the industry," User told me. "Content providers such as online radio stations can make dynamic lineup changes in real time. They can add an advertisement, public service announcement, audience voting, whatever, all on the fly." The user interface for this feature allows for drag and drop, which is great too.

But wait, there's more
Much of what constitutes Corona will be revealed in the next couple of months, so I'll update this preview as more information becomes available. But from what I've seen so far, Corona looks to be an exciting set of technologies that will benefit all Windows users, and not just those that upgrade to XP.

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