Streaming media is hot. So hot that more than 10,500 bodies could barely move through the packed aisles of exhibitors at the Streaming Media East 2000 tradeshow in New York City this summer. Promoters called it "the world's largest Internet audio video event." Others might call it a modern-day gold rush.
There were new names, new faces and new companies at the infant show, which quickly outgrew the confines of a large midtown Manhattan hotel. Yet, we ran into many veteran NAB goers in the crowd. Most professed to not fully understand where the streaming media juggernaut is headed.
At the same time there was a pervasive sense that this may just be the next big thing in media distribution and it would be a dangerous career move to be left behind.
What's clear is Internet media technology is improving at rapid-fire speed. Demonstration after demonstration showed that the video quality of streaming media is closing in on what we used to call "broadcast quality." Entertainment media on broadband networks - without a compromise in technical quality - is now close at hand, and content owners are looking for new ways to sell it.
With three major incompatible streaming media standards now competing in the marketplace, simplification of the user experience is also on the fast track. The goal is to make the user experience as simple as listening to radio or watching television.
The big news at the show was a new alliance between Apple Computer and RealNetworks, the top two players in streaming media. Real licensed Apple's QuickTime technology for use with its new RealServer 8 and agreed with Apple to make it easier for end users to deal with content made with the company's competing systems.
The deal leaves Microsoft's fledgling Windows Media format - number three in the marketplace - as the odd man out.
Under the agreement, RealServer8 can deliver QuickTime streaming content to QuickTime players. This is a boost for Apple because content producers who already use Real's dominant technology can more easily add QuickTime to their existing servers. The deal does extend to the software players that end users need to access content.
ASK, TELL, HELP
For example, a RealNetworks player still cannot view QuickTime, and a QuickTime player still is not compatible with Real's media format. However, the agreement implements a new user-friendly policy between the two companies called "Ask, Tell, Help."
This means both RealNetworks and Apple agree to "ask" at the time of installation for user permission to become the default program that reads or writes a type of media file; "tell" the user of any limitations they face in choosing a default player; and "help" the user find the right player if he or she encounters a file that their default player cannot access.
Before this new policy, a computer owner who normally used RealPlayer to access streaming media would be permanently switched to Apple's Quicktime player after viewing a single piece of Quicktime media.
"Internet politeness is more and more important these days," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs. "This policy will ensure that people have a great experience no matter whose software they use."
RealNetwork's founder and chairman Rob Glaser said the benefit of the Apple deal for his company is to allow nearly every video format to flow through its RealServer 8 software, making it the first choice for most Internet broadcasters. RealNetworks now claims to have 125 million users for RealPlayer. Apple claims an installed base of at least 50 million QuickTime players.
RealServer8, introduced in May, offers a significant improvement in video quality. At its introduction, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola said, "RealNetworks has broken through the Internet's video barrier."
In addition to Quicktime, RealServer8 incorporates several new media types, including Macromedia Flash 4, MP3, HTML and RichFX, a 3D video format.
"Streaming media on the Internet is just starting out and we see a huge opportunity in this business," said Glaser. "Our (server) customers want as few duplications of infrastructure as possible, and this will really help them reduce costs."
SHARED PLAYER PLATFORM
Still proving elusive is a single Internet player application for all media types, regardless of how it is encoded. Neither Jobs nor Glaser went so far as to say they would share the same player platform. "This is a good first step," Glaser told the press.
But, he added, expect to see streaming media move off the PC platform in the near future. Over time, he said, a range of consumer devices, including home stereos, telephones and television sets, will become receivers of streaming media.
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