Q&A: Digital Directions from New Windows Digital Media G.M.



Amir Majidimehr, General Manager, Windows Digital Media Division (Click on the image for high-res version.)

REDMOND, Wash., May 1, 2003 Today, Microsoft’s Windows Digital Media Division and Artisan films announced the release of a high-definition version of the motion picture “Terminator 2″ in anticipation of this summer’s release of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” Offering the high-definition version of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Extreme Edition)” on a single DVD-ROM was made possible through the use of the new Windows Media 9 Series technology, the software platform developed by the Windows Digital Media Division.

Now heading this division is its general manager, Amir Majidimehr , who previously was responsible for the development of the core Windows Media Audio and Video technologies, and software such as Windows Movie Maker and Plus! Digital Media Edition. In his new role, Amir will lead the team in developing the latest digital media technologies, and will also plan and execute strategies that will impact the future of digital entertainment. PressPass spoke with Majidimehr to learn more about how today’s news fits into the division’s overall strategy.

PressPass: First, congratulations on your promotion. Can you give an overview of the Windows Digital Media Division’s mission and how things are evolving within the group?

Majidimehr: Thank you. The Windows Digital Media Division was created to reflect the growing importance of digital media across the board — to consumers, businesses, developers and more. Actually, Microsoft’s investments in digital media stretch back more than a decade to when we began our work to ensure Windows provides the best music and video experience of any operating system.

We’ve come a long way since then. With Windows Media 9 Series we are now delivering the best end-to-end platform for creation, delivery and playback of digital music and video content. We have the No. 1 media player both at home and at work, our technology powers the largest base of content services, and we have a strong presence in consumer electronic devices. == Did you know, for example, that more than 200 devices available today support the playback of Windows Media? We’re even making an impact in the area of independent film distribution and exhibition, thanks to the high-definition video and multi-channel audio capabilities of our new Windows Media Audio and Video 9 Series technology.

With the application of digital media expanding rapidly, we’re seeing new scenarios for Windows Media technology that will enhance its importance in Windows and in the universe of consumer electronics devices.

So there are lots of opportunities for us to pursue. But our strategy remains consistent deliver the best possible digital media experience in Windows. Enable digital media everywhere. And provide the best available platform for other companies to use to build digital media into their own unique products and services.

PressPass: The “Terminator 2″ announcement is exciting news. What role did Microsoft play?

Majidimehr: When we released Windows Media 9 Series in January this year, we knew there would be a wide array of uses for it from home entertainment and digital cinema to professional broadcasting tools and enterprise streaming. Look at the video side, for example. One of the main challenges of distributing a high-definition, feature-length film to consumers is the sheer size of the raw, uncompressed data. With current DVD compression technology (MPEG-2), there’s no way to fit an entire high-definition film on a standard DVD disc. But with the compression and quality provided by Windows Media 9 Series, Artisan was able to store a high-def version of “T2″ on a single DVD-ROM for playback on the PC at three times the quality of a standard DVD. Consumers will now be able to enjoy a stunning home theater experience for “T2,” due to the power of PCs running Windows XP and coupled with high resolution displays, plasma screens, and even digital projectors. This is yet another example how the Windows platform is increasingly helping make the PC a premier entertainment device in the home. This is a first for the industry and illustrates the enormous potential for our technology.

PressPass: Since the launch of Windows Media 9 Series, have you found that your strategy is moving in a new direction? Toward film, for example?

Majidimehr: There are clearly new customers who can benefit from our technology, but our core objective remains the same delivering the best possible digital media experience in Windows, and enabling digital media everywhere. Part of that includes music and film, but it also includes devices and how they interoperate. When we released the final version of the Windows Media 9 Series platform, we also announced new licensing terms that make it even easier and less costly for consumer electronics manufacturers to build support for Windows Media into their products. This is helping create an even richer ecosystem involving Windows PCs and devices, in which the digital media content that’s on your PC can also be played on your devices. This creates increased opportunities for both the consumer electronics industry and the software industry.

PressPass: What has been the reaction by the movie studios to Windows Media 9 Series?

Majidimehr: The reaction has been positive so far especially when studio and label execs actually see the technology in action. We’ve held digital cinema screenings at independent film festivals, and held private demonstrations with producers, distributors, and post-production facilities. And almost all have been amazed that the image and sound quality of Windows Media is so high. They were familiar with Windows Media as an Internet streaming technology, but now they’re seeing it as a tool that can help in production, distribution and exhibition. In areas like independent film, once you’ve seen Windows Media 9 Series on the big screen, you quickly understand that this technology meets the picture and sound quality demands of theatrical exhibition.

PressPass: Are you finding a different reaction from the music labels than from the movie studios?

Majidimehr: We’re seeing the entertainment industry embrace Windows Media not only for the superior audio and video quality, but also for the digital rights management software that allows for flexible and secure content delivery opening new distribution channels for their content. Enabling business models on top of great technology is critical for these industries.

Windows Media technologies are being utilized across many of the top online music sites and services today, offering robust, competitively priced services involving downloads, CD burning, device transfer, streaming, Internet radio, artist recommendations, etc. Some of the sites and services include press play (editor’s note: the lowercase spelling and partial italics are correct), MusicNow (Full Audio), Listen.com, Rollingstone.com, Tower Records and several international services in Europe and Asia. With online piracy continuing to impact the music business, the proliferation of these legitimate online music services and the ongoing evolution of traditional label distribution is offering music fans more tunes, more choices, more options, and more flexibility.

PressPass: Why is Windows Media a good compression technology for film distribution?

Majidimehr: Windows Media is a compelling option for filmmakers and distributors alike for several reasons. We’re able to achieve extremely high-quality video in very small file sizes compared to other formats we call this
“quality per bit.”
I mentioned the drawbacks of displaying a high-quality, feature-length film digitally, due to the sheer size of the data. If you can fit a high-definition movie on a single DVD-ROM using Windows Media, you open up new methods of distribution for filmmakers, especially independents.

Case in point: we’ve already had over 2000 screenings of Artisan’s
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown”
across the U.S. as part of the BMW Films Digital Cinema Series. Also this past year we screened three films in Windows Media 9 format at Sundance, and WM9S is now an accepted screening format for next year’s show. Many in the audience had no idea it was a digital projection the quality was that good. That was clearly a high point for my team.

And our recent announcement with Landmark Theatres (see Related Links at right) shows we’re making inroads on the infrastructure side of d-cinema as well. By the end of 2003, Landmark will outfit all of its theaters nationwide with digital cinema systems projecting in Window Media 9 Series. To playback a Windows Media encoded movie, you can hook up any digital projection system to a PC running Windows XP. It’s incredibly simple. When you combine high-quality video at smaller file sizes with off-the-shelf PC hardware, you can see how the independent film community will finally be able to move forward with a more cost effective distribution method. There is more info on what we have been doing in this area up on http://microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/press/vip/film.aspx .

PressPass: That prompts another question how can independent filmmakers save money using WM9S?

Majidimehr: Independent filmmakers can potentially save tens of thousands of dollars associated with distributing film prints. Instead of spending thousands to create copy reels for theaters which degrade over time they can encode with Windows Media 9 and create perfect copies on DVD for a fraction of the cost.

This technique is even more valuable when creating a 35 mm blow up. If a film was shot on 16 mm or Super16 mm, for example, the producer must make a
“blow up”
of the film to 35 mm so it can be sent to festivals or theaters for screenings. With our technology, they can transfer the film to WM9 for distribution without having to go from 16 mm to 35 mm. Then the film can be distributed on CDs or DVD, or over the Internet.

As companies like Landmark and Digital Cinema Solutions continue to create a nationwide digital cinema infrastructure, we’ll see the economics improve for filmmakers significantly.

PressPass: It seems that the music and film industries are hesitant to use a proprietary format. Do you find this to be true?

Majidimehr: The objective of standardization is to ensure high quality and affordability for the industry. Windows Media-based exhibition is dramatically more affordable and provides higher quality at smaller file sizes than other codecs. There are plenty of examples of successful proprietary formats that are standards within the industry today, like Dolby and DTS. Microsoft is not proposing that Windows Media is necessarily the only solution for widespread music and film distribution. However, the combination of quality, affordability and long term licensing for Windows Media is leading to rapid adoption in the music industry and in key areas in the film industry such as independent film, the emerging area of video-on-demand, and now in retail as part of a DVD set in the case of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Extreme Edition).” .

PressPass: What is Microsoft’s role in supporting the protection of intellectual property? How does Digital Rights Management figure into this equation?

Majidimehr: As one of the largest intellectual property companies in the world, Microsoft is very sensitive to the needs of copyright holders. We introduced the first comprehensive DRM for audio and video back in 1999, and have invested US$250 million into this technology to date. We continue to provide the industry with the best solution that allows content owners to set the level of security that’s right for them.

From my perspective, any solution for protecting content providers’ intellectual property needs to be balanced with delivering what consumers want. We know consumers love digital music and video — whether through streaming audio or video, through music CDs and DVD movies, or on portable devices. So we see Windows Media DRM technology helping bridge the gap between consumers’ demand for digital media experiences and content providers’ need to sustain their business models.

PressPass: You recently announced the release of the Windows Media Data Session Toolkit. What type of benefits does this provide to consumers? To music labels?

Majidimehr: The Windows Media Data Session Toolkit allows media and entertainment companies to offer
“second session”
content on standard CDs and DVDs which contain value-added content, everything from bonus tracks to videos to live versions of your favorite artists. The first session plays back on any CD player, while the protected second session is read and played back when loaded or downloaded onto a PC.

The Toolkit includes encoding, encryption, and metadata insertion tools, and also provides a user interface for creating an
“on-disc license server,”
which issues licenses from the disc and doesn’t require the user to be connected to the Internet. What this gives consumers is content they would otherwise not be able to access, and in a way that is secure enough to prevent mass copying. In turn, our Windows Media DRM software allows content owners to establish specific business rules around usage and protect their intellectual property. For example, content owners could set up rules to allow a consumer unlimited play-back of content on their PC, give them the ability to transfer content to a portable device, or allow them to burn content onto a CD once, twice or an unlimited number of times. A key part of this is creating a flexible environment to work in the
“all or nothing”
proposition of accessing music and video content simply hasn’t worked.

To date, several artists, including Sinead O’Connor and Fischerspooner, have released CDs that use the Toolkit and we expect more to come as supporters like Universal Music Group and EMI release additional second session content.

PressPass: You mentioned the new licensing terms for Windows Media earlier. Can you explain how these work?

Majidimehr: When we announced the final availability of the Windows Media 9 Series platform in January, we also announced some important changes to our licensing terms to meet customer needs and take a step forward in our mission of enabling digital media everywhere. We now provide the flexibility to use the latest Windows Media audio and video codecs on any platform, device or application, and our licensing terms are available on our Web site for all to see. You can also
“mix and match”
the components which opens up more possibilities for consumer electronics manufacturers.

Two other key elements are the specifications and the pricing. We’ve frozen the specs for our audio and video codecs ensuring backward compatibility for playback even as we continue to improve the audio and video quality. We’ve also created a 10-year licensing term so that consumer electronic manufacturers can conduct better long-term product planning around Windows Media. For pricing, we’re offering license fees at a lower cost than other technologies like MPEG-2, MPEG-4 or Real.

The net-net is that we are giving consumer electronics device manufacturers longer terms, fewer restrictions, and lower prices than other technologies the most important criteria we heard from our device partners.

PressPass: Where do you see digital media both as a technology and as an industry five years from now?

Majidimehr: Over the past five years, consumer use and industry acceptance of digital media has really taken off. In the next five years, we see digital media playing a larger role in the revenue of media and entertainment companies as they find new business models and delivery systems that work, and as more and more devices allow you to move and share your media files. We’ll also see rapid growth of digital media within the enterprise as companies understand the potential of digital media and streaming in the workplace.

As the technology continues to improve and becomes more seamless to the consumer, I see a future where content can flow freely and automatically from device to device both within the home and when you’re on the go, wherever it makes sense for you. I see Windows Media playing on all manner of devices from the smallest wireless phones to the largest digital cinema theaters. Add in emerging digital audio and video support in DVD players, TVs, and car stereos and I predict we’ll see the digital media landscape only continue to progress, innovate and expand.