Streaming Advances Boost High-Speed Content


Cable data-service providers will soon be getting a content
boost to enhance the appeal of high-speed access, thanks to new advances in streaming
software that are fueling a surge in the use of Web video among major media companies.

One of the key technical components in the changing content
scenario is a new protocol, dubbed "SMIL" (synchronized multimedia-integration
language) and pronounced "smile." The World Wide Web Content group, known as
W3C, has proposed the protocol as a means of mixing and synchronizing a wide range of
multimedia elements in files stored for Internet distribution.

The new protocol is the product of joint efforts involving
Digital Equipment Corp., Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., RealNetworks
Inc., Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs and several other companies, along with leading
research groups.

"SMIL is an excellent example of how to build on the
foundation laid down by XML [the multimedia extension of the Web's HyperText Markup
Language]," said Tim Berners-Lee, director of W3C and inventor of the World Wide Web.
"Combining [multiple data formats] into a multimedia presentation can create a great
impact, even at low bandwidth."

RealNetworks, a leading supplier of streaming tools, said
last week that it would incorporate the SMIL protocol into its took kit as part of a
completely revamped, second-generation update of its RealSystem product suite.

"We're seeing some segments of the media market
adopting video-streaming in their Web content very aggressively now," said Brett
Goodwin, media-systems-product-unit manager for RealNetworks. "SMIL ... allows
developers the flexibility to synchronize multiple streams of material together, including
animation, text and audio, as well as video."

With 56-kilobit-per-second modems expanding access speed by
50 percent and gaining in market penetration, developers see an opportunity to put video
to greater use, Goodwin said, adding that video can keep surfers at Web sites longer and
boost advertising sales.

One barometer of the changing attitude toward the use of
advanced Web content among media companies can be found at NBC. The company has jumped
into support for video in a big way with its creation of a site -- -- that
is dedicated to expanding awareness and use of video-enhanced sites, whether or not
they're affiliated with the network.

NBC has even contracted with Intervu Inc., a supplier of
distributed Web-hosting services, to facilitate the delivery of video and graphics-rich
content at higher speeds than would be possible using single-site distribution over the
Internet, said Robert Silverman, spokesman for NBC Interactive.

"NBC has held back with involvement in [Internet]
video until now, but we believe that the time is right to make our play," Silverman
said. "Wee see multimedia over the Web as a big part of our future."

Videoseeker offers a comprehensive directory of other Web
sites offering video, along with a mix of NBC-developed and third-party content in four
categories: clips from NBC shows; background interviews and other material pertaining to
NBC programming and personalities; music videos; and Hollywood entertainment.

NBC Interactive is also putting video to use in conjunction
with related network sites, including a "neighborhood" location involving its
local-broadcast-station affiliates and programming developed specifically for its main

To maximize video distribution to the largest possible
audience, NBC is using three file templates: material developed in Apple Computer
Inc.'s QuickTime, which delivers short, nonstream bursts of video material for
playback on older personal computers and slower modems; Microsoft's Netshow, which
delivers streamed video to Windows 95-equipped users without requiring them to download
software-player "plug-ins"; and the RealNetworks system, representing the
highest level of quality for users who have downloaded RealNetworks' version-5.0

By using Intervu's distributed-server backbone, NBC
can accommodate the need to store everything in multiple formats, while assuring that
there is enough capacity to handle a high volume of hits on its sites, Silverman noted.

"The access rate for users is 40 percent faster than
if we used only our own servers," he added.

The network's foray into video on the Web is only the
beginning, with more sites and programming under development and talks under way with
cable and other high-speed-service providers, Silverman said.

Along with the mixed-media formatting capabilities
available through the use of the SMIL protocol, the new RealNetworks second-generation
system, which has just entered beta-distribution, supports real-time streaming protocol,
which allows media files to be streamed in their native formats without requiring
conversion for use on the Web.

Combined with the SMIL function, this means that developers
can program complex content using simple tag instructions without resorting to special
coding, Goodwin said.

"We're also introducing what we call 'Smart
Stream,' which allows you to create a file that automatically scales to different
access rates," Goodwin added.

This means that a developer can program a single file to
stream at dial-up rates for users accessing a site over phone lines, and at much higher
rates for users accessing it over broadband links, he noted.