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MLB.com hands baseball to Microsoft

As American as a software monopoly

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America's pastime has become a Microsoft-only affair with Major League Baseball's (MLB) online arm scrapping support for Real media during the 2006 season.

For years, MLB Advanced Media delivered audio and video streams of baseball games to fans via both Windows and Real media. No more. Due to what it calls a lack of demand, the media company has cancelled Real support - a huge blow to open media fans and Apple users in particular.

"We gave fans the option to select Windows or Mac," said MLB Advanced Media spokesman Jim Gallagher, in an interview with El Reg. "They overwhelmingly selected Windows and Windows media. We have gone with what the fans wanted."

(You can't help but wonder if MLB's past legal squabbles with Real Networks didn't have something to do with this decision as well.)

MLB says that Mac users are supported, if they have Safari 1.3 or above or newer versions of Firefox. We've found that claim to be a bit of a stretch.

MLB Advanced Media allows you to stream every baseball game in video format for $14.95 per month or in audio format for $14.95 per year. Although, the company does block out a couple of nationally broadcast games per day.

The MLB service has never been perfect with the site overall being pretty slow and the video quality pretty poor. Baseball, however, was way ahead of rival sports leagues in the US with the online services and has built a successful business with 1.3m subscribers in 2005.

We have long used and enjoyed the service - until this year, that is. This season the streaming video service has been almost unusable. The video, of course, only plays in Windows Media Player, which isn't the best software on Macs in the first place. In February, Microsoft said it was discontinuing work on the Mac version of its Windows Media Player and the current version from November 2003 would not be updated. Microsoft steers users to the Flip4Mac package, which often makes up for some of the Windows Media Player problems, but won't work at all with MLB's services.

This leaves a scenario where the video streams either won't start or drop out time and again during the broadcast. In addition, we can't seem to get a full screen view when the video actually does play on the Mac. Last year, by contrast, full screen video played like a champ in Real format on the Mac.

MLB contends that supporting Real streams isn't a cost-effective proposition given the small audience seeking the format. That position may be justified from a business standpoint but will be hard for serious baseball fans to accept.

You have to wonder how Disney's largest shareholder and Apple CEO Steve Jobs feels about this situation. Disney owns ESPN, which has a streaming service deal with MLB.com. Doesn't Steve Jobs care about baseball?

On the business front, MLB.com has also scrapped plans for an IPO. Consultants told MLB Advanced Media that an IPO could value the company at about $2bn to $3bn. Baseball owners, however, don't seem to want to pursue the IPO idea as they battle with the Players Association over compensation.

Baseball is a sport that we really all own. It's a shame to see MLB.com hand Microsoft another monopoly - but maybe monopolies are as American as apple pie. ®

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