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September 16, 2003

Microsoft's WM9 strategy

The big news last week is that Microsoft has submitted WM9 codec specification to SMPTE for consideration as a standard.  It's all over the press, including my own article on StreamingMedia.com, Microsoft Opens Windows Media 9 Codec to SMPTE.  Stefanie Olsen also writes a great and informative piece on the topic at ZDnet. 

The surprising addition to the news and perspective came via Good Morning Silicon Valley yesterday:

HomeTheaterHiFi.com reports that Redmond is plotting an end run around the consumer tech industry that may bring HD-DVD to market within months and in the process make Windows Media 9 video format the standard for HD-DVD media, set-top boxes, and video-editing systems.

What's interesting here is the way it suggests that Microsoft's submission to SMPTE is not a big change in strategy, but may be what was planned all along.  First, develop technology that offers something of value to the motion picture and broadcast industries; then seed the marketplace with a bit of it here and there (the T2 DVD, Sigma chip designs).  Then, when the market value is demonstrated and there's some product on the shelves, submit it as a standard to "grease the wheels" of further adoption. 

In the article, Tod DeBie notes that WM9 can get HDTV DVDs and other media into the market sooner and better than standards-body driven alternatives, which are still tied up in process.  If WM9 does it faster and better, and MS has opened the technology to SMPTE, then industry adoption just might take off. 

Finally, Tod says this:

There are many possibilities for Microsoft here, and considering their obvious commitment to video quality, the results are bound to be good for the consumer.

I'm not certain that Microsoft dominance over its markets is ever particularly good for the consumer in the long run.  For that matter, neither is anyone's total dominance over any market.  WM9 is great technology, but codec technology is a very fickle thing. Competing technologies leapfrog each other regularly, with the "best" codec only remaining "best" for a short while before having its title taken away by the competition. I only hope that the decisions and deals made in the next few months by the consumer electronics and broadcast industries are based on solid long-term business strategy. Whatever they choose, they (and we) will have to live with for a very long time.
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With modern PCs requiring the backup and archiving of hundreds of gigabytes of data, we need high capacity discs such as dual-layer 50GB and quad-layer 100GB Blu-ray rather than legacy formats such as the current dual-layer 30GB HD-DVD standard.

As 50GB Blu-ray can support over four hours of high definition video at 24Mbps, it makes a lot more sense for the consumer to have codecs optimised for this data-rate rather than the (roughly) 10Mbps of so of current WM9. If WM9/1080p24/10Mbps was transparent then 24Mbps would be pointless for 24 frames per second video, but it isn't anywhere near transparency - unfortunately, major large-scale artifacts make it obvious that you're watching a video rather than a window on reality.

I would hope that using nearly three times the bandwidth these limitations of WM9 could be significantly addressed. Also, for the consumer it would make sense to see comparisons of modern codecs optimised for 1020p24 at 24Mbps, as this is the standard at which films are likely to be released to the consumer. However, if the Blu-ray consortium moved to 72Mbps as the standard data-rate (from 36Mbps), as Sony already uses in its professional range (as well as 144Mbps) it would provide the headroom for even better quality high definition video over three hours at 32Mbps coupled with lossless high resolution audio.

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