New capabilities offer new uses

In "Windows Media Training Server," November 1999, I reviewed the Microsoft and Compaq multimedia server and software combination. The Windows 2000 Magazine Lab reviewed this product because it provides a quick and easy way for readers to get a streaming media server set up in their network environment without going through the aggravation of configuring all of the Windows Media components themselves.

The reader reaction surprised me; I received dozens of email messages from readers looking for more information about the product.

Multimedia isn't a topic Windows 2000 Magazine deals with that often because until recently, Windows NT didn't provide full support for DirectX. This lack of DirectX support limited (to a certain extent) NT's usability as a multimedia platform. But the Web has made NT Server a common platform for serving multimedia content, and many vendors are working hard to make Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro) and NT Workstation the platforms of choice for multimedia developers. Content development is the key here, and Windows 2000 (Win2K) and NT workstations are going to be at the forefront of content creation.

Computer-based multimedia has taken off in the past 18 months. Dozens of Internet sites offer music for download in the MP3 format. MP3's availability has spawned an entire industry of hardware devices, such as Diamond Multimedia's Rio MP3 player, that let users carry around their own selection of MP3-encoded tunes and dozens of software applications that enable the creation of music in MP3 format. Even Microsoft joined the game with the Windows Media Player, which supports MP3 playback, and with Windows Media Audio (WMA), a competing format for music encoding.

At Comdex/Fall '99, a demonstration of Casio's Cassiopeia palm-sized device with Windows CE and a 340MB storage card in the CompactFlash slot was one of my favorites. Microsoft had quite a bit of music encoded in 64K bandwidth WMA files, and the quality of the playback was very good. At a 64K bandwidth, an entire audio CD used only about 27MB of space, so the storage card had room to store the content of more than 15 CDs in the space of a palm-sized device, which also offers all the other features of the Windows CE handheld PC (H/PC). On the downside, the cost of the Windows CE device and the storage card was about $1000. However, the new Rio portable music player also supports WMA files and offers the ability to carry with you about an hour of your favorite music for about $100.

Asking vendors about their multimedia content creation tools for NT drew quite a few blank stares—until I arrived at the Sonic Foundry booth. Sonic Foundry is best known for its Sound Forge application, a professional-level digital audio editor that fully supports NT. In addition, Sonic Foundry offers a wide range of professional audio products that you can use to do everything from creating music to burning the premaster CD for the production plant. The folks at Sonic Foundry are well aware of the changes going on in the digital audio market, and the company's products support encoding to both WMA and MP3 formats.

After attending vendor meetings and product demonstrations for close to 20 years, I'm not easily impressed by vendor demonstrations. However, talking with Sonic Foundry developers and walking through the company's products held my attention for more than an hour. Frankly, the developments in multimedia are fascinating; the technology has made major advancements in the past few years. This technology is impressive—even in terms of the computer industry.

Sonic Foundry has also managed to lower the buy-in point. The company has added budget-priced versions of several full-featured, big-dollar packages. This price gives anyone who is interested the ability to create, edit, and distribute multimedia content.

Personally, I'm not a fan of using a computer to play back music; turning a $2500 workstation into a $25 radio isn't high on my list of priorities. So, I keep a stereo system in my office for those times when a little background music aids my concentration. I've also never understood what motivates my friends who scan the Internet daily for new MP3 files to play back on their computers. But now, sound is certainly an integral part of the computing experience.

Talking to the Sonic Foundry people made me think about the potential of these new technologies for my personal use. I have nearly a thousand audio CDs, but the only time I listen to them is when I'm driving my car. And now that I work from my home, I don't drive my car on a regular basis. Before I had kids, I took the time to keep my CD collection organized. But for the past couple of years, I just haven't had the time to arrange the collection in any sort of order. The disarray makes it very difficult for me to find any specific CD without an extended search, and I don't often have the time to make that search.

But what if I used a WMA format to record my CDs to a server in my home network? If you use the 96K WMA format, all 1000 CDs would take less than 35GB of storage space, and a pair of 20GB IDE hard disks costs less than $400. The compression loses a little quality, but even playback over a set of good headphones reveals only the occasional artifact from the encoding.

As I wrote this article, I used Sonic Foundry's SIREN Jukebox to encode 550 CDs for a total of almost 6300 WMA tracks, taking up about 17.5GB of storage. Because I have my house networked, my kids can play back their favorite tunes without having to play with dad's expensive stereo equipment. And my wife makes up playlists and listens to her favorite music on the computers in the family room and in her office.

Of course, rerecording music brings up the question of licensing and some cause for concern. I own all the CDs I've encoded, and I copied the music for my personal use only, but the potential for abuse obviously exists.

Recording in the highest quality MP3 format available (i.e., 320K) takes up more than 130MB per CD, but the easy availability of high-performance Internet connections like cable modems and Digital Subscriber Lines (DSLs) means that you can easily pass around even large files. These new technologies have revived my interest in music, which will result in me buying more music. I hope the music business will also see the potential interest as a plus. But I doubt it.

As a network administrator, you might have one more thing to add to your list of verboten things to keep off the network; you can add unlawful copies of copyrighted audio works to your list of things to watch out for. Even the most seemingly unrelated technological advances make problems for network administrators.