Microsoft kicks off today a week of consumer-oriented software and services announcements with the release of three important digital-media technologies that raise the bar for PC-based multimedia. The company will follow today's releases of Windows Media 9 Series, Windows Movie Maker 2, and Plus! Digital Media Edition with a far wider group of announcements tied to the 2003 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which opens tomorrow in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Windows Media 9 Series includes Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 Series, Windows Media Encoder 9 Series, Windows Media Services 9 Series, the Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 Series codecs, Windows Media 9 Series Digital Rights Management (DRM) Series, and the Windows Media 9 Series software development kit (SDK). Microsoft will release these products through free downloads beginning today at noon Pacific time, the company says. Versions of WMP 9 are available for Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, and Windows 98. And to further take advantage of the technical superiority of WMA and WMV over competitors such as MPEG-4, MPEG-2, and other related technologies, Microsoft says it will make its new codecs available for any platform, application, or device and will offer flexible new licensing terms. The company says that licensing Windows Media 9 codecs on non-Windows platforms will cost approximately half the price of MPEG-4 licensing.

Windows Movie Maker 2 takes advantage of advances in WMV and features dozens of new titles and video transitions and effects, as well as an innovative Auto Movie feature that automatically generates professionally edited home movies from raw video footage. Windows Movie Maker 2 will be available only for XP users for free starting tomorrow through Windows Update.

Plus! Digital Media Edition includes several interesting digital-media-oriented applications and marks the first time Microsoft has made a retail software product available for download online. Users who pay $20 for Plus! Digital Media Edition will get a product-activation code that ties the installation to one PC; users are free to give out the software to other users, but they'll have to contact Microsoft electronically and pay $20 to activate the product on their own PCs. In the past, Microsoft implemented product-activation technologies only in core retail products such as Microsoft Office and XP; the company told me that Plus! Digital Media Edition will be the first of many software products Microsoft will market and sell online. The product includes the final WMP 9 version and prompts users to download Windows Movie Maker 2 if they want to install features that enhance that application. For more information or to purchase Plus! Digital Media Edition, visit the Microsoft Web site.