Microsoft broadens its streaming vision

Tandberg developing encoder for Microsoft Windows Media 9

Streaming media is ready for its broadcast close-up. Microsoft's recently released Windows Media 9 format attains DVD and CD quality, and the company is working on a joint project with TV-broadcast-equipment manufacturer Tandberg. Consider it the first attack in a marketplace dominated by formats like MPEG-2 and MPEG-4.

Tim Sheppard, director of strategic development, Tandberg Television, says the two companies began discussions six months ago on a product that would bring the streaming format into a form factor that is identical to that of traditional broadcast video encoders. The dedicated box is designed to offer performance advantages over PC-based encoding systems, making it more suitable for transmission efforts requiring greater redundancy.

"On both the audio and video side, the Microsoft encoding is very impressive," says Sheppard. "We began looking at the source code five or six months ago, and the engineers who had many years of MPEG experience were quite skeptical. But, as things have moved along, the actual performance in 1 to 3 Mb/s is significantly better than what you typically get."

Sheppard adds that encoding improvements to MPEG-2 have slowed down. But streaming formats, like Windows Media 9, continue to make gains. More important, he adds, the streaming format outshines traditional MPEG formats even more at lower bit rates.

"The bandwidth savings can be 20% to 50%, depending on the material and the bit rate," he says. "You can find material that will be more than 50%, but that's rare. It's more often in the 30% range."

Windows Media filtering also helps with the quality. "For example, when the encoding runs out of steam, it looks okay because the block size is smaller," he explains. "So if there's a problem, it doesn't look nearly as bad as losing an MPEG block, which is bigger."

The most obvious market segment that would find the product attractive would be DSL providers looking to offer VOD and IP-based video services. But terrestrial and even cable operators could find the technology useful in adding additional "sideband" content via IP.

"With DSL, performance is a critical point because the reach from an exchange to customers is dependent on the bit rate," says Sheppard. "Lower bit rate means greater reach."

The low-end threshold with content encoded with MPEG-4 has tended to be around about 3.5 Mb/s. Above that, content providers are happy with the quality. With Windows Media, that threshold can be reduced, according to Sheppard.

Tandberg will demonstrate the technology at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam beginning Sept. 13, although that will be only a simulation based on a PC. The end product, which Sheppard hopes will be ready for a public unveiling by next April's NAB convention, is expected to be shipping in third quarter 2003 and will cost around $18,000 and up, depending on capabilities.

One aspect that is attractive to potential users of Windows Media is that, as consumer devices begin to incorporate Windows Media playback, reliance on set-top boxes for delivering services is reduced. A DSL provider offering video can do so without having to buy set-top boxes and wait several years for payback.

It also has applications for over-the-air broadcast or cable.

"As long as you can put an IP stream into an existing broadcast, then you can include content encoded in Windows Media," says Sheppard. "Terrestrial applications are interesting because the limits on bandwidth have been the problem."