Avoiding the Streaming Meemies
Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates recently speculated that some time in the next three to 10 years, devices such as cameras and televisions connected to the Internet will be more prevalent than personal computers. He’s probably right, but you don’t have to wait that long to see the influence of broadcast media taking place on the Internet. A technology called “streaming media” is now setting the stage to change our viewing, listening and Internet usage habits.
As the name implies, streaming media flows onto your computer system as you’re watching or listening to it, much like you watch television programming.
To take advantage of streaming media, you need a browser plug-in--a program that makes the media accessible from within your browser. Most plug-ins are free to consumers. The software companies make their money by selling the development tools to the companies who stream the media.
The most popular streaming media format today is the RealSystem format (a.k.a., RealAudio format) from Real Networks (https://www
.real.com). To experience RealSystem audio or video content, you first need to download the RealPlayer plug-in, which is available on the company’s Web site.
The current version is RealPlayer 5.0, but Real Networks is now testing RealPlayer G2 (as in second generation), which will offer some great new features. For example, RealPlayer G2 provides both a sound and a graphic equalizer so you can tweak sounds to your liking as well as brightness, contrast and hue.
Another increasingly popular streaming media format is VivoActive, from Vivo Software (https://www.vivo.com). This format requires a plug-in called the VivoActive player, which is available for download on the company Web site.
While it’s not intended as an audio format or for displaying full-motion video, Macromedia’s Flash (https://www.macromedia.com) is very useful for streaming somewhat simple animations. The Flash file format is very compact, meaning that Flash animations play fairly well even over slower modem connections, such as those at 14.4 kbps.
To view Flash animations, you have two choices. You can download and install the Flash plug-in from the Macromedia Web site or download the full Shockwave plug-in, which includes support for Flash. There’s not much point in downloading only the Flash plug-in when you can support both Flash and Shockwave (a format for presenting Macromedia Director content online) in a single plug-in. Guaranteed, you will find the Shockwave plug-in valuable if you regularly surf the Web, because many sites are using it.
There is also NetShow, Microsoft’s entry in the field of streaming Internet content (https://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/netshow/). Microsoft designed NetShow as more of a development platform than anything else. By that, I mean that other companies can design enhancements for the core NetShow technology. For example, Real Networks and Vivo Software both make development tools for the NetShow environment.
NetShow has a shortcoming that users might find to be an annoyance. First and foremost, Microsoft Media Player, the software required to view NetShow content, runs only under Internet Explorer. While Internet Explorer continues to gain market share, NetShow still leaves the majority of Web surfers who use Netscape out in the cold.
Also, at this writing, Media Player 5.2 (the current version) is only available for Windows 95, with Unix and Mac versions promised.
The thing to remember is that you don’t really have much of a choice of which streaming technology you use. If you want to view a site that requires RealPlayer, you have to use RealPlayer. Likewise, if a site uses the VivoActive format, you’re forced to use VivoActive Player. That means you’re likely to end up with a hard drive full of browser plug-ins so you can handle every streaming media format out there. Talk about a hassle.
One possible alternative is offered by Geo Software through its Emblaze line of products (https://www.emblaze.com). Like the other companies mentioned here, Geo sells development tools that let Web content creators produce streaming Internet media. The difference is that all multimedia created with Emblaze Creator is Java-based. This means that as long as you have a Java-enabled Web browser (any one released in the last year or so), you don’t have to worry about plug-ins. All Emblaze multimedia plays as a Java applet within the browser window. This makes good sense.
Frankly, I doubt very seriously that streaming Internet media will ever replace the good old radio or television. It reminds me of when CB radios were hot, before the rush to purchase cellular phones. Considering I can tune a radio station or find a television program in about 30 seconds, it’s not all that convenient to turn on your computer, log onto the Internet, locate the site and find the programming desired. Furthermore, if Internet traffic is high, the program that you want to hear using the Web may have more snaps, crackles and pops than a bowl of cereal.
Streaming media will continue, however, to be an influence and a niche application for many years to come, offering important access solutions in certain situations. For example, the Internet can reach places that standard radio waves cannot--such as the heart of big office buildings located in congested downtown areas. Because many radio stations are beginning to Webcast, or broadcast over the Internet using streaming audio, people in these big buildings don’t have to miss their favorite radio programming.
Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at https://www.komando.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her national talk radio program can be heard on Saturdays from 7 to 9 a.m. on 97.1 KLSX-FM.