Questioning Technology: New Generation of Internet Media Arrives

Three years after the invention of real time audio delivery over the Internet, a new generation of Web media is poised for launch. This time the palette broadens, with the possibility of content creators choreographing sound, video, still images, text and animation into a single synchronous presentation.RealNetworks, the Seattle-based company that invented what's now called "streaming media," recently announced RealSystem G2, a next generation delivery technology that substantially boosts the multimedia capabilities of online media and brings it much closer to broadcast quality.RealSystem G2 boosts audio quality over 28.8 modems by more than 80 percent and substantially improves video quality over conventional dial-up phone lines. It will also dramatically reduce the annoying glitches and dropouts in sound and pictures that have long plagued computer users trying to access real time sound and pictures over the Internet.RealNetworks is by far the most popular streaming media technology with about 85 percent of all Internet users. However, Microsoft is expected to mount a strong challenge later this year with the release of the next version of NetShow, its competing technology. While RealNetworks charges for its most advanced server technology, Microsoft includes NetShow at no extra cost to purchasers of its Windows NT server software.The looming battle between RealNetworks and Microsoft comes at a time of dramatic growth in web-delivered media. In the past five months alone, there's been a 98 percent increase in the number of web sites offering streaming media content, RealNetworks said. Each week, a staggering 150,000 hours of live content using RealAudio and RealVideo is now being produced.In the same five month period, the company said, over 15 million free players for its streaming media have been downloaded from the RealNetworks' web site (www.real.com). Currently, over 100,000 players are being downloaded each day.Though there are currently are over 30 television stations using RealVideo for live Internet program feeds, audio continues to be the most popular use of streaming media technology. Though video delivery has gotten most of the press attention, pictures delivered over low bandwidth Internet connections are still jerky, fuzzy and hard to watch.The growth of audio webcasting has been spectacular. According to BRS Radio Consultants, there are now 1316 audio broadcasters delivering streaming media over the Internet. Only 111 of these outlets -- less than 10 percent -- are solely dedicated to Internet delivery of content. The rest are mostly over-the-air radio stations and audio networks using the Internet to extend their reach.Now that program creators have far more powerful storytelling options at their disposal, it's uncertain whether they will choose to explore new media forms or stay with the tried and true. Internet users are not as adventurous as was first expected.Even RealNetwork's chairman Rob Glaser, the visionary who pioneered streaming audio, admits he was wrong when he initially predicted that users of the technology would prefer short audio clips integrated with text and photographs.It turns out that audio listeners forced to repeatedly click for new sound segments find the process slow and tedious , soon losing interest in following an interactive thread. Most listeners, it turns out, want a single, continuous program that plays in the background as they surf through unrelated web pages. In short, the audience seems to prefer the form factor of old fashioned radio.Steve Church, president of Telos Systems, a company that makes AudioActive, a NetShow-compatible streaming technology, thinks old fashioned, basic spoken word audio (without pictures) will win out in the end."Communication with the voice is fundamental to the way human beings relate to one another," he said. "Whether words were spoken around a campfire or over the Internet, I don't think this form of communication will ever change."(A preview release of RealNetworks G2 is available for download at http://www.real.com. Info on Microsoft's NetShow can be found at http://www.microsoft.com.)

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