Bill Gates is right: There's plenty of competition in the computer world. But the battle isn't between operating systems, Web browsers or business software suites. No, the front line in today's platform war is streaming: Delivering audio and video over the Internet.
As streaming technologies improve and Internet connection speeds rise, streaming content is proliferating--live radio, on-demand news, movie clips, music videos, online training and things best not mentioned in a family column. And if interactive TV ever does arrive, streaming media platforms will probably deliver it.
Now here's the surprise: Microsoft isn't out in front. According to audience auditors at Media Metrix and Nielsen/NetRatings, Microsoft's Windows Media technology is in second place behind RealNetworks' RealSystem, with Apple's QuickTime coming in third.
Both Microsoft and Apple have fired fresh volleys at RealNetworks. Apple last month released a preview version of QuickTime 5, which will ship early next year. The day after Apple announced QuickTime 5, Microsoft announced the Mac version of its Windows Media Player 7, the Windows version of which shipped earlier this year.
How do these technologies compare? For versatility, QuickTime rules. More than a streaming platform, QuickTime is a multimedia operating system used for everything from Web playback to video production. QuickTime also incorporates the very cool QuickTime VR, which delivers 360-degree panoramic scenes you can navigate with the mouse.
QuickTime 5 brings improvements in Web playback, digital video production and VR. A new QuickTime Player fixes the worst interface flaws of its predecessor. It still has a faux-metal appearance that went out with 1970s-era stereos, but at least QuickTime 5 enables developers to create "skins" that change the player's appearance.
Apple says QuickTime 5 provides "skip protection" features that guard against the missed video frames that can make Web video look so jerky. But no sites provide QuickTime 5 streams yet, so I couldn't test this feature.
Apple has often ignored QuickTime VR in new QuickTime releases, but not this time. QTVR now supports "cubic" panoramas that enable you to look not only left and right but also up and down. Some stunning examples are at http://www.apple.com/quicktime/preview.
Then there's Windows Media Player 7, or WMP 7. Microsoft's Mac streaming players have always shipped long after the Windows versions and have often been buggy. Why, one could almost suspect Microsoft of stacking the deck in favor of Windows.
The prerelease version of WMP 7 doesn't dispel these suspicions. The new player does less than its Windows cousin and was unreliable in my tests, even by prerelease software standards. And its would-be futuristic appearance is inconsistent with the Mac's interface and that of Microsoft's other Mac programs.
There is some good news. WMP 7 brings the new Windows Media 7 compression schemes, called codecs, to the Mac. These new codecs deliver very good video and excellent audio. WMP 7 also supports "digital rights management" technologies that enable music sites to provide downloadable tunes that can't be copied or that self-destruct after, say, 30 days. Protected tracks are the music industry's answer to MP3. My experience downloading protected tracks was mixed. Downloads sometimes didn't work, and when they did, I often had to work around Windows-centric instructions such as "right-click on the file to download it."
Using Windows Media Player 7 on a Mac, I felt like Bill Gates in a biker bar--out of place and unwelcome. Microsoft has some great Mac programmers, and it needs to assign them to its streaming player. In the meantime, avoid the prerelease WMP 7. You can still play most Windows Media content using the older Media Player 6.3, available at http://www.microsoft.com/mac.
As for RealNetworks, its players are identical on Macs and Windows. They're cluttered with ad-like buttons for the company's content partners, but they work well. On the Mac, the streaming platforms of choice are QuickTime and RealSystem. As for Windows Media content, much of it will be inaccessible to Mac users until Microsoft sweats the details and delivers a player worthy of the Mac.
Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.