QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Internet Broadcasting Explodes

Internet broadcasting -- a technology still less than three years old -- is growing so rapidly that many experts predict it will become a universal global multimedia standard in less than two years.The real-time delivery of Internet multimedia, and the content creators using it, have entered a period of hyper activity on several fronts. For example, Progressive Network's RealAudio technology -- which now dominates the Internet with an 85 percent share -- leaped from about 100 call letter radio station clients in September, 1996 to a total of 230 stations by year end. New stations are entering the market almost daily."This industry is growing five to seven percent a month," said Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of Progressive Networks. "RealAudio is growing between 40 and 50 percent each quarter. We are still very early in the growth curve."The concept of interactive multimedia broadcasting without a transmitter (or government regulation) has caught the imagination of communicators around the world. The movement has spawned a new breed of content provider -- part radio, part TV, part text/graphics -- seeking to create a global mass communications medium over the Internet.NetRadio, a Minneapolis-based Internet broadcaster, now claims more than 75,000 daily listeners from over 90 countries. "We are entering the era of personal radio," said NetRadio CEO Robert Griggs. "With personalized advertising tailored to personal interests."The trend of the technology is now to mimic the ability of traditional broadcasting to reach large audiences at once. An important new technical buzzword is "multicasting" -- the concept of sending the live program signal (or "stream") to millions of users simultaneously.Multicasting of the live audio/video stream -- rather than "unicasting" one stream at a time to each listener -- dramatically decreases the needed bandwidth and load on the network when large audiences want to tune in to the same program simultaneously. Unicasting, the method most used today, is well suited, however, for individual listen-on-demand applications and will remain a viable Internet technology.At the beginning of 1997, two major developments are re-shaping the concept of Internet broadcasting:First, Microsoft -- the company that dominates personal computing -- has just entered the market with its new NetShow technology, a component of the Windows NT operating system. NetShow, now being offered to Microsoft customers at no extra charge, makes Internet multimedia broadcasting a standard component in the computer giant's server technology."The big thing Microsoft brings to this party is that NetShow is free," said David Oldfield, vp of marketing for Xing Technology, maker of a competing Internet broadcasting system. "I think Microsoft will change this business because the server capability will cost nothing extra."The second big development is the advent of a new computing standard called Real Time Streaming Protocol, or RTSP. Just as HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is used on the Net as the standard way of transmitting HTML content for web pages, RTSP seeks to be a common communications protocol for the control and delivery of real-time multimedia.RTSP was jointly developed by Progressive Networks and Netscape Communications, makers of the Netscape Navigator Internet browser, to address the need for an efficient, standard mechanism to deliver streaming media over the Internet. It's been endorsed by over 40 major computer manufacturers and is now being considered by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as a proposed Internet standard.If RTSP is approved (and virtually everyone thinks it will be including industry giant Microsoft), then the old concept of multiple, proprietary audio/video players will become extinct for the Internet user. The result is expected to be standards-based software or appliances that can receive all Internet multimedia, regardless of their proprietary processing or production technology."You won't have to have an RCA radio to listen to an RCA transmitter," said Steve Church, president of Telos Systems and an advocate of an open standard for the transmission and reception of audio over the Internet."RTSP not only helps create a generic environment for the end user but it solves a whole lot of problems because we'll all have a standard way of doing things," said Oldfield.The analogy of the common radio or TV receiver for Internet media access is a bit too simplistic, said Glaser. "The big difference is that radios and TVs aren't programmable devices," he said. "You can't add new features to them once you buy them. With software, you can always upgrade and add to the consumer experience."How will companies such as Progressive Networks and Xing, who now sell proprietary client-server systems, compete with Microsoft, who is giving theirs away? Two words, say the executives: "Value added.""RTSP is great and super important," said Glaser. "But sometimes people think that when there's a standard it makes the whole product a commodity. That doesn't have to be the case at all. We add a ton of value today and will continue to. We'll add new features beyond the baseline functionality."For example, he said, take security measures for the protection of intellectual property. The RTSP transmission method provides for inclusion of a security system between the server and the client but does not specify the actual security method. Security strategies will become a value added product that companies such as Progressive Networks will market to their customers.Xing, said Oldfield, sees itself selling audio/video encoding devices and software tools to make the production of Internet programming easier to produce.All the players agree that 1997 will be another years of explosive growth for Internet media. Oldfield predicts RTSP will become a standard before the end of the year. Microsoft's Giovanni Mezgec, lead product manager for NetShow, said "if RTSP becomes a standard, we will definitely support it." Multicast capability on the Internet, Church predicts, "will move fast...we will start to see real deployment in a year and in two years it will be pretty ubiquitous."As the technical obstacles diminish and the Internet becomes a standardized mass communications platform, the spotlight will shift to content providers -- perhaps thousands of them."What happens when you have 10,000 broadcasters around the world?" asked Oldfield. "Managing them alone will be a big task. Which has what format? How do I know what I want to watch or listen to?"Glaser sees managing this mass of content as one of those value added services his company can provide. "We are not a producer or a network," he said. "But we (with the Progressive's current Timecast service at http://www.timecast.com) can help people find what is out there. TV Guide is a form of content. TV Guide is not a programmer but it helps you find out what's on TV."Against this backdrop of rapid technological change, new types of broadcasters are beginning to emerge -- some local and others global in their content and perspective. An Internet broadcaster can now create "communities of interest," Oldfield said, meaning communities of listeners are joined by content rather than physical location. On the other hand, Internet broadcasters can stress localism and regional culture, but be available to a global audience."This split between localism and globalism is the $64 question," said Glaser. "I think the answer is people are doing really innovative things in each area. The best differentiate themselves by local value adds or by value adds to a specific genre of content. If you find a niche that is meaningful to the equivalent of a one or two share, you can make money. You are available in the biggest city in the world. It's called the Internet."(Progressive Network's RealAudio web site is at http://www.realaudio.com. Xing is at: http://www.xingtech.com. Microsoft is at http://www.microsoft.com and NetRadio is at http://www.netradio.com.)

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