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DVD-quality video at 1 Mb/s

For an industry clamoring to solve the quality problems that have made streaming video a frustrating and painfully ugly experience, RealNetworks believes it has the answer: RealSystem 8, a new Internet media system that delivers DVD-quality video at data rates as low as 1 Mb/s, VHS-quality at 500 Kb/s.

RealSystem 8, introduced last week at the Real Conference 2000 in San Jose, Calif., was co-developed with Intel, something that Vice President, Consumer Products, Dave Richards says led to significant improvements. "We've developed what we think is the world's best compression technology. We think there are huge, interesting applications."

One fresh feature that will allow for new applications offers the means to take advantage of HTML pages and capabilities directly within the RealPlayer and RealJukeBox, enabling content authors to include forms, scrolling and custom controls.

RealSystem 8 also supports native streaming of MP3 files and iPoint, a development from Princeton Video Images. PVI has taken the capability a step further, allowing for insertion of virtual technology on streamed video programs as well.

Viewers watching streamed video of a baseball game, for example, could pull up statistics or other information by clicking on a player. They could also be linked directly to the Web site of a virtual advertiser.

RealNetworks is hoping that the technological improvements in RealSystem 8 will help answer some of the concerns users have about image quality. "Each frame of video has information similar to DNA that reassembles the frame," says General Manager, Systems and Tools, Ben Rotholtz. "It doesn't simply interpolate or smudge information together."

The system has a two-pass encoding process to save bits and optimize video quality, he explains. "It takes the size of the video down considerably from where it was before. And, if you have a 'lossy' network, our SureStream technology will throttle the flow of information forward or back to adjust for congestion and allow for continuity."

Most important, Internet users with 56.6-Kb/s dial-up access will see a marked improvement in video quality. "This is really about redefining what users can expect from a media experience and what they'll get for a given bandwidth," says Product Manager Marty Roberts. "We think that, for dial-up users, this is going to be compelling quality and open up new entertainment scenarios."

Richards believes the ability for almost any Internet user to have a compelling streaming experience puts new demands on broadcasters. "The history of distribution is that more distribution has always grown the market. It doesn't mean that everyone wins equally, but the networks have an opportunity."

The streaming-media player marketplace-mainly RealNetworks, Microsoft and Apple-has grown increasingly competitive, with each company claiming gains in unique users. At present, the battle among the streaming players is most hotly contested between RealNetworks and Microsoft.

For example, RealNetworks claims an 85% share of the market and believes its latest release will further cement its leadership position.

But Microsoft and some of its partners believe Microsoft's MediaPlayer holds the advantage. They cite RealNetworks' recent licensing of Microsoft's media audio as the first step in that company's conceding the encoding end of the streaming battle.

Richards dismisses that notion. "Microsoft has created a tremendous amount of disinformation," he says. "We have a license for Windows Media Audio, which is their compression format.

"But we have no support in any existing products for their technology, and we are going to provide limited support for Windows Media Audio for downloadable audio, not for streaming."