Chicago -- The pace of advanced Web-content development
quickened last week with the release of the beta-test version of RealNetworks Inc.'s
second-generation media-delivery system.
The company brought home the dramatic implications of what
it calls "RealSystem
G2" at the Internet World conference here, as it demonstrated content from a
handful of the thousands of developers who are already putting various iterations of the
new tools to use.
Observers said the bottom line is that concerns about a
lack of compelling content to drive cable-data sales are no longer valid. That's
because providers of high-speed-data access over cable and other networks do not
necessarily need to wait for a mature broadband-access market before broadband-enhanced
applications for the Internet are created.
"There's a lot more flexibility to create
interesting content with these new tools than we've ever had before," said Jeff
Garrard, senior executive editor for CNN Interactive (CNNin). "To really make
effective use of the technology, our developers have to become savvy with the new
scripting language, but we expect to begin introducing many new features as we get up to
The new scripting language that Garrard referred to is
known as "SMIL" (synchronized multimedia integration language). It is a key
component of the new RN system that permits developers to mix text, animation and still
pictures along with audio and video in the streamed-media segments, greatly enhancing the
role of streaming in defining the nature of content on a Web site.
For example, Sony Music Entertainment allows browsers to
click on still pictures of recording artists that turn into multimedia-streaming segments,
including the music video of a cut from an album and information about the artist and the
song that changes as the song progresses. Also, key words or phrases allow users to
hyperlink to segments where users can order the compact disc.
The SMIL protocol, which recently won support as a proposed
standard from W3C (the World Wide Web Content group), is built on the foundation of the
next-generation version of HTML (HyperText Markup Language), known as "XML." The
new technology provides a uniform means of developing Web pages with multimedia content,
much as what HTML has done with text.
SMIL opens a floodgate for the use of streaming media where
the entirety of an application, and not just a small audio/video component, is part of the
packet flow. Besides RN, other companies involved in its development include Digital
Equipment Corp., Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Corp. and Lucent
Technologies' Bell Labs.
Moreover, along with SMIL, RN's second-generation
system comes with an encoding capability that allows developers to author content for up
to four different data rates in one stroke. This means that they can prepare content to
stream at high speeds to cable-data subscribers and to other users with high-speed access.
For example, in dial-up mode, end-users receive the Sony
music video at a low frame rate with audio somewhat below FM-radio quality; a cable-data
subscriber gets it at video-quality levels approaching the video segments that one sees on
MTV: Music Television, with audio close to CD quality.
"We're seeing just about all of the developers
who have downloaded our G2 encoder adding a high-speed option, just because there's
no effort involved," said Paul Thelen, product manager for RN. "As more users
gain access at higher speeds, content that capitalizes on those rates will have an edge in
appeal over content that doesn't offer such quality."
CNNin has not begun encoding for higher rates, pending
further experience with G2, but it intends to, Garrard said.
The emergence of SMIL and multiple streaming rates means
that efforts on the part of cable high-speed-data service providers to minimize the use of
streaming in order to avoid clogging their pipes will soon have little effect.
For example, @Home Network is likely to switch over to
streaming once CNNin begins offering a high-speed version of its files to anyone with
high-speed access, whether they're @Home subscribers or not, Garrard suggested. @Home
is now providing broadband-enhanced versions of CNNin and other material using large file
downloads and playback via Apple Computer Inc.'s "QuickTime" multimedia
Indeed, @Home has been looking at using streaming for its
enhanced content for longer-form material, said Suneet Waahva, manager of media
development for @Home.
"We're experimenting with encoding at 256
kilobits per second, which will effectively double the frame rate and support higher
levels of resolution in the range of 18 to 20 frames per second," Waahva said.
Thelen noted that while much broader use of streamed-media
applications with content enhanced for rates of 100 kbps and higher for high-speed-access
users will add volume to the data flow over cable's pipes, streaming may not be as
problematic as some operators think. "If you look at the size of the files that @Home
downloads for playback over QuickTime, which can be on the order of 50 to 60 megabytes, it
won't take long to clog the arteries in that mode once they have more content
available and more users accessing that content," he said.
Moreover, Thelen added, streamed media gives users the
option to decide to switch off the spigot early in the playback, whereas a bursty download
of a multimegabyte file consumes bandwidth for the whole file, whether or not a user ends
up using it for more than just a few seconds.
"People might find out that it all evens out once they
get to higher penetration and usage levels," he said.
But Thelen acknowledged that the multipurposing power of
SMIL and other components of RealSystem G2 could eventually change assumptions about
bandwidth utilization over shared access pipes, such as what cable provides.
"This stuff is too compelling to assume that
we're not going to see a big jump in bandwidth consumption as people have access to
the best quality stuff at any given site," Thelen said.