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Microsoft jump-starts streaming media offensive

MS brings in big guns, draws bead on RealNetworks, Apple

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Microsoft yesterday upped the ante in its bid to dominate the streaming media market when it announced what it's calling the Windows Media Broadband Jumpstart (WMBJ) -- its answer to Apple's QuickTime TV initiative. Both ventures, of course, are targetting the streaming market leader, RealNetworks. Apple's approach is to leverage its superior content playback technology, QuickTime, as a streaming system through its partnership with Akamai, which uses a clever mirroring software and a stack of servers located around the world to make it appear that streamed QuickTime has more bandwidth than it does. Earlier this week, Microsoft announced it had struck a similar deal with Akamai through a $15 million investment, and yesterday took the plan a stage further with WMBJ. Like QuickTime TV, WMBJ pulls in a host of well-known content companies who will offer their streamed audio and video offerings in Windows Media Technology (WMT) format. Of course, those already offering content in QuickTime and/or RealSystem G2 format will continue to do so. They're goal is to get their content to as many viewers as possible and that means they'll never want to stick with any one format. However, WMBJ goes a stage further than QuickTime TV by bringing on board cable companies, including RoadRunner, TimeWarner and MediaOne. The idea here appears to be to match RealNetworks' Real Broadcast Network, which utilises major US telcos' networks -- MCI WorldCom, AT&T and Sprint -- as high-speed backbones to improve the delivery of its streamed content. To a degree, that's what Microsoft and Apple get from Akamai, but by brining the cable guys on board, the Beast of Redmond gets access to faster end user Net connections. In return, the cable companies get better access to content they can market to potential subscribers. Meanwhile, the content providers get guaranteed delivery to the cable companies' Net customers through the cable portals. In short, WMBJ is a neat two-way deal brokered by Microsoft between the cable companies and the content providers, with Microsoft gaining because it gets big-name support for its technology. It's classic Microsoft mindshare mining, and it hopes to stockpile enough of it to bury RealNetworks and, to a lesser extent, Apple. The deal with the cable companies also prepares the ground for the point at which real TV-style content -- as opposed to postage stamp-sized grainy, frame-skipping video -- is delivered across the Net. Apple is likely to get there first, in terms of providing software that can deliver the right level of image quality, but if Microsoft already has the delivery guys hooked into WMT, Apple's technology lead may not count for much. ®

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