Microsofts Corona Out of the Bottle

The latest incarnation of Microsoft's Windows Media Player -- formerly code-named Corona -- hits the Web.

A Corona-fueled bash has hit the Web. The latest incarnation of Microsofts Windows Media Player -- formerly code-named Corona -- leaked to Windows enthusiasts Web sites within a week of the official launch date announcement.

Although Microsoft cordons off access to select groups of partners and software testers, downloads sites have permeated the Web bringing the next-generation digital media platform, Windows Media (TM) 9 Series, to the masses.

Windows Media 9.0 introduces a new proprietary codec that Microsoft is pitting against the MPEG-4 standard embraced by competitors including Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple Computers. Apples newly christened QuickTime 6.0 includes support for the standard. Both standards charge royalties for distribution or transactions.

Microsofts codec will power higher quality audio and video content -- especially over high-speed connections. Fast Stream technology eliminates the need for buffering delays, allowing for an always-on broadcast stream. Home audio systems from Pioneer and other partners will support the format.

Competitor RealNetworks, of Seattle, Wash., currently includes a similar feature in its subscription RealOne player.

Other benefits of Microsofts new player include improved scalability and efficiency, which will grant the software giant leeway among content providers -- who are a key target in Microsofts battle to dethrone RealNetworks as streaming media king. Digital rights management has also been bolstered, empowering application developers to customize solutions.

Microsofts technology will offer server-side playlists to allow content providers to dynamically update streams. Also aiding developers will be a new .NET-centric plug-in model for embedding digital media into applications. Microsoft hopes to establish itself as the de facto standard when it comes to building a business model around streaming media.

Build 2601 offers a sneak peak into what the software giant has in store for its September 4 release. The player sports a revamped user interface, advanced editing of media properties, DVD ripping capabilities, VCD playback, improved plug-in support, and two new plug-ins: Audio Normalize and Audio Crossfade. The player now sits in the taskbar when minimized.

A "send to a friend" option has also been added to WMP9. While Microsoft has thus far avoided the controversy surrounding file sharing, the Redmond, Wash., company is taking a step to embrace the phenomenon with its Corona media player.

Some features have not yet been implemented at this early phase of development, and testers report that the build cannot be uninstalled and downgraded to stable builds. Microsoft asks that customers who happen by the build do not install it.

"An unauthorized, very early development build of Windows Media Player 9 Series has been posted. In fact this build is so early that many functions are missing or incomplete. As with any unauthorized software, this is untested and we recommend that users do not install this pre-alpha version because it will put their computers at risk for instability. Come September 4th, everyone will be able to download the official beta of the exciting new Windows Media Player 9 Series which will provide a dramatically improved playback experience," said Jonathan Usher, director of Microsofts Windows Digital Media Division.

Windows XP Service Pack 1 allows users to change middleware, such as the media player, as per the consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

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