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Far from the Streaming Crowds

7/02/2000 8:00 PM Eastern

Next time, they should just bring in busloads of 15-year-olds and find out what really works in streaming media.

Indeed, all that was missing from the recent Streaming Media East carnival-oops, conference-in New York was the audience who is actually using these on-demand interactive services.

Instead, the exhibit and lecture halls were populated (as usual) with intent, starry-eyed 20- and 30-somethings, their booths bulging with look-alike software tools and a vocabulary dominated by the word, "cool."

Strolling among this crowd were throngs of 40- and 50-year-old business and production executives, many from traditional media companies. They've decided (or been designated) to figure out how or if streaming media will affect their conventional TV or radio holdings, as well as how to fend it off or take it over.

Talk about a failure to communicate!

Of course, actual audiences are rarely part of the mix at a trade show. When was the last time you met one of those seven-hours-per-day viewers at a cable or broadcasting convention?

But in the fast-moving Web business, a few well-placed "Generation Y" consumers could have quickly foretold what is truly cool to the would-be streaming moguls.

As well documented in these pages, this year's Streaming Media conference was loaded with developments and deals from RealNetworks, Microsoft, Yack and a throng of younger hopefuls.

Akamai Technologies demonstrated why it's the dominant streaming-video host, but Digital Island also showed why it is positioned to become a formidable competitor. Shortly after the conference, Digital Island snared $45 million in equity investments from Microsoft, Intel and Compaq, plus another $100 million commitment from Compaq for financing equipment sales and leases for Digital Island and its customers.

The strategic funding, of course, assures Digital Island's role as a shop where Microsoft's "Windows Media Player" has a safe home. But it's also a grand incentive to create streaming content, some of which is sure to find a market.

Deals like this make streaming media seem ever more imminent-and potentially a video-on-demand threat to cable programmers. This is where the cultural disconnect really set in.

Media veterans wandered the aisles, clucking incredulously at the low-resolution, herky-jerky visual quality that still plagues streaming video. It's getting better, but it is certainly not up to broadcast standards. Even the promise of "VHS quality" amused traditional media producers, which are now aspiring to digital-TV clarity.

What many of them won't concede is that Web video is truly a different medium, and not just an extension of TV as we've known it.

This was underscored by the avalanche of companies supplying and supporting networked versions of homemade video, the latest approach to whatcable quaintly calls "public-access TV." Nearly one-dozen companies-such as POPcast Communications, Eveo, Always-onTV.com and I-Clips Inc.-showcased their technology and packages for creating or hosting do-it-yourself video.

Although the capability is the digital equivalent of making your friends sit through a slide show of your vacation photos, in the right hands, this is a tremendously empowering tool.

The formats and business models vary, but the surprising number of hopeful companies-far more than speculated in this space recently-are another reminder that Gen Y viewsers and other customers are being offered new ways to exploit their digital cameras and Webcams.

And what about wireless video streaming? Packet Video, a streaming-media technology start-up, showcased a service that could become a platform for short-form video delivered through palm-sized devices.

The well-financed San Diego start-up unveiled deals with more than 35 media and online companies, which will make material-mostly short-form videos-available for viewing on the handheld units.

It's a significant aftermarket for cable and theatrical program suppliers. Packet Video's content suppliers range from AtomFilms, E! Entertainment Television, Fox Sports, GO.com, House of Blues, Launch.com, Sony Pictures and Sundance Channel to Traffic411.com, Toddlerwatch.com, VideoGreetings.com and weather.com.

Packet Video-which already has financial backing from Time Warner, Sony, Intel, Siemens and Qualcomm-expects to introduce its MPEG-4 wireless-multimedia service by early next year through a variety of wireless carriers.

Alternatives like Packet Video underscore the growing competition that traditional media will face as those 15-year-olds begin to dictate what to produce and transmit.

Without overemphasizing the ageism disconnect at the Streaming Media conference, it was amazing to tune into the attempted dialogues as inarticulate young geeks tried to explain their niche solutions to bewildered old-media professionals.

Beyond the mumbo jumbo, there was a flat resistance to the possibility that audiences will watch these alternative streams-some of which have been flowing through today's dial-up circuits for two or three years.

Maybe the media geezers were not threatened because they couldn't understand the geek-speak being batted around.

One message did get through, however. Streaming media continues to offer immense promise. Plenty of 15-year-olds will be ready to watch it-whatever it is. But with all of this posturing and positioning and rearranging, it is not clear which companies will be around a year from now to keep those promises.

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