The formats

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Provider: Apple Computer

Formats and tools: QuickTime (.qt format) and tools including QuickTime Player and QuickTime Pro tools

Need to Know: Apple obviously has more than a few things going for it in the multimedia area. The company has deep penetration in most creative industries. Apple iTunes and iPod are standard-bearers in the digital music space. QuickTime is already a preferred format for high-quality video applications, such as movie trailers. All told, more than 300 million QuickTime Players have been downloaded to date.

Beyond that, Apple's main story in online video is its close relationship with video standards bodies. The International Standards Organization (ISO) MPEG committee has chosen the QuickTime format as the basis for MPEG-4 video. That's a lot of acronyms to swallow, but in short, Apple believes QuickTime's association with international standards like MPEG-4 and 3GPP will position it as the format of choice for digital video. Apple's bet is that large entertainment companies will drive the video future. And they won't stand for proprietary standards, says Frank Casanova, Apple's senior director of product marketing for Mac OS X Audio and Video. "They will not use proprietary technology when there's an open standard that's as good or better," Mr. Casanova said.

Provider: Microsoft Corp.

Format and Tools: Windows Media Format, Player and server-side tools

Need To Know: The main thing to know here is that Microsoft is committed to dominating online multimedia and despite missteps, it is making its usual slow steady progress. Thanks to the dominance of the Windows platform, Windows Media Player is available as a content target on the majority of user desktops.

"Our position is that Windows Media Player is in the strongest position from a distribution point of view," said Allie Savarino of vendor Viewpoint, which leverages Windows Media Format extensively as part of its product set. While Apple and Real have content portal strategies as well, Microsoft-via its MSN service and portal-has a real advantage in pushing Windows formats to a waiting customer base.

"With Windows Media we support an end-to-end scenario, where you've got the video content producer working with Windows 2000 server and the user consuming content on Windows Media player," said Rodney Fisher, business development manager for Microsoft's digital media division. As is often the case with Microsoft, that equation will be tough to beat.

Provider: Real Networks

Format and Tools: Real Audio and Video (.ra and .ram), RealPlayer, Helix

Need to Know: Real is one of the pioneers of online audio and video. As such, it finds itself today in heated market and legal battles with its prime nemesis, Microsoft.

The company is focused these days on its own content business, but when it comes to the underlying Real technology, its story is simple-Real offers better quality.

For starters, the company claims that its advanced encoding techniques can deliver high quality video at a much lower bit rate than its competitors. That means quality video content delivered at just 500 mb/s, versus as much as 900 mb/s for Real rivals, claims Atul Puri, Real director of codec technologies.

Puri said: "Download size is still the name of the game, and an extra 35% is ... significant."

Provider: Macromedia

Formats and tools: Flash Video (.flv) and Flash MX tools

Need to Know: Macromedia's Flash technology is the de facto standard for creating interactive ad banners and Web content-helped significantly by the fact that more than 98% of all browsers can handle Flash content. In the video area, Flash is less well-known, but that is changing quickly, especially when it comes to online video advertising.

Flash Video is tightly integrated with the main Flash file format, .sws, and creative professionals cite the platform's value for video content.

"Using Flash [video], we've been able to deliver a better overall experience for the user," said Candice Meyers, senior, one of the Internet's top providers of video content. "With Flash, 97% of the world already has it installed. It can sniff the speed of the connection on its own, the user clicks and the video is there."