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The Secret Behind Windows Media


See a screenshot of in-line movie viewing on Linspire
This week we announced the immediate availability of the latest Windows Media audio and video technology for Linspire. It's an important first for Linux, since it means desktop Linux users can now watch the latest video news at Fox News and CNET, movie trailers on Yahoo!, and sample songs from sites like BMG Music with native, licensed and supported technology. The support spans Windows Media 8 and Windows Media 9, for both audio and video. It even allows for in-line web browser playback, which is how many sites now operate (where the video is played within a portion of a web page rather than a separate program). Linspire users can use CNR (click and run) to one-click update their computers to receive this functionality.

As excited as we are to be able to debut native Linux support for Windows Media 8 and 9, there is a darker side to the story. A story that began for me five years ago, back at MP3.com. In those days Real Audio was the king. MP3 was unknown and the dark horse. Microsoft was launching Windows Media and was a heavy favorite to dethrone Real and take over the digital music business. Over the years, Microsoft has persistently tried to convince entertainment and technology companies to use Windows Media. Most have been extremely wary of using Microsoft technology for fear that Microsoft would monopolize the digital music and movie industries as they have done with the PC software business. These companies have feared that Microsoft would start with reasonable pricing, then
raise the rates once they've secured a monopoly or even worse, not license to certain companies at all.


Learn more about Real Player 10 for Linux
Microsoft has made steady progress getting music services to standardize around Windows Media by spending hundreds of millions of dollars and leveraging their operating system monopoly. I vividly remember a conversation I had five years ago at a Windows Media launch party at the House of Blues with Will Poole, then head of Windows Media (now head of the entire Windows division) for Microsoft. He was scolding me because, as CEO of MP3.com, I was refusing to support Windows Media. Mr. Poole was insistent to me and to the press that Microsoft would not discriminate who they licensed to. You can watch video of him from that time period, touting "our open approach to broadly license our technology across a full range of industry partners," and "anytime on any device." I expressed my concerns that even though Microsoft's public position was that they would not discriminate and license everyone at the same price, that given their business track record, it would be foolish for me to believe them.

Now fast forward to a few months ago when I was speaking with Microsoft about a Windows Media license for Linspire for the next three years. They agreed to license parts of Windows Media technology, but withheld portions required for Linspire to work with popular music services. I was told they do not license "general computing platforms." As I predicted, Microsoft is discriminating who they will license their technology to. And their new policy effectively locks Linux users out of most commercial music services like Napster, Musicmatch and RealRhapsody. Future movie services that use Windows Media will be inaccessible as well. This is a worrisome trajectory, since computers are increasingly being used as audio and video devices, and perhaps why the European Union is rightfully looking into antitrust issues swirling around Windows Media.


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The ultimate solution is to embrace open standards - formats that aren't controlled by one company who can selectively price or license them. I have been pleasantly surprised at Real Networks' renewed investment with their Helix project and Real Player 10, which they are releasing for Linux. (We hope to have them at the upcoming Desktop Linux Summit.) I spoke with a Real representative about their plans for licensing Linux. They said, "We don't have an operating system agenda." Consequently, they have no reservations about licensing for Linux or any other operating system. And of course there's always MP3. I think there are a few more chapters to be written in the battle for control of digital media. You can expect something from Linspire in the near future that pushes the industry in the right direction...stay tuned.

-- Michael
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