There's a new charge from the light brigades at Microsoft Corp. and RealNetworks Inc., which are wooing cable operators, programmers and technology vendors on a new streaming-media platform that's applicable to video-on-demand, interactive TV and other content directed through digital set-top boxes.
Microsoft started first with the Windows Media 9 Series. That platform, formerly code-named Corona, would facilitate the download of streamed video and audio content to set-top boxes and other Internet-protocol-enabled communications devices.
Then RealNetworks unwrapped "Helix," its own platform for the same purpose. Both initiatives come with particular elements, including a video/audio server.
But Real's project is grounded on an open-source, open-systems approach, and comes with a built-in developer community to generate or transmit streamed content.
At a July 22 press conference held to unveil Helix to participants and reporters, RealNetworks declared that most of its platform was available immediately. The server, known as Helix Universal Server, will be available for sale in August.
Microsoft is scheduled to release Windows Media 9 Series Sept. 4 at a major Hollywood bash, preceded by a two-day developers conference.
In various statements, both companies point out that their platform approaches will be compatible with most cable set-top operating systems and middleware, including Windows and Java.
But in its presentation, RealNetworks — headed by former Microsoft officer Rob Glaser — stressed the open-source nature of Helix and its ability to work with Linux software and developers.
"This is about making convergence actually converge by getting rid of the bottlenecks," Glaser said. "An open model is a superior model, and having this is a key catalyst for the digital industry ahead."
RealNetworks president and COO Larry Jacobson said the community developer program is the main differential between Helix and Windows Media 9 Series, in that Helix's developer base is open source-minded, while Windows Media is based on a closed, proprietary format.
The community approach "will allow cable operators and programmers to build their applications on top of our platform, and in an efficient, harmonious way, deliver any kind of data to the TV," he said. "There will be a much higher degree of innovation in IP delivery and content."
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interview two weeks ago, Microsoft Windows Digital Media division lead product manager Michael Aldridge estimated that the audio and video codecs in Windows Media 9 Series would improve video compression by 20 percent, with a "huge cost savings" for content providers.
Jacobson declined to specify how much cable programmers could have in encoding costs via Helix, adding that the circumstances vary from situation to situation.
More than 30 companies have pledged their content or technology support to Helix, including Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Sony Corp., TiVo Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. As of July 24, Sony is the only digital cable set-top box vendor aligned with the venture.
Set-top maker Pioneer Electronics Corp. earlier made a deal with Microsoft to support Windows Media 9 Series.
Another Helix community participant: Video-server manufacturer nCUBE Corp, a server provider to cable MSOs.
Talks with other cable set-top vendors, operators and programmers are ongoing, Jacobson said. Additional product and vendor alliances are forthcoming, an RNI spokesperson added.
A demonstration of Helix is being considered for Broadband Plus (the former Western Show) this December. Jacobson was on the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing's annual pre-Western panel last fall.