You're sitting in your study, you've accessed the Pamela Anderson Web page and there she is on every corner of the screen, shimmying in glorious full-motion technicolor. Forget it, says Tim Phillips, it's fantasy without bandwidth.
I know multimedia exists on the World Wide Web because I've seen it on TV. 'Two cars built around one vision,' says the spotty adolescent, trying to impress the girl he's trying to cop off with in her dad's study.
'Fiat Bravo, three-door hatchback; Fiat Brava, five-door fastback.'
Four thoughts spring to mind. First, sharing a Web page (if the Web had existed in those days) was never my idea of how to kick off an adolescent snogging session. Second, her dad must have a bloody good ISP if he's accessing three simultaneous streams of full-motion video. Third, these Fiat bods know a thing or two about multimedia. Fourth, what's a fastback?
I'm right on the first point, wrong on the next two and to find out the answer to the last, I decided to visit the Fiat Web site, which surprisingly bears no resemblance whatsoever to the ad man's wet dream on the commercial.
At the real Fiat Web site, you're lucky if they spell the car's name right.
It's about as interactive as sitting in a car showroom. This is what multimedia is on the Web at the moment - fantasy.
But that won't always be the case; it's just that some things need to happen first. We need a way of making the Web interactive. We need the bandwidth to produce rich, applications. Not least, we need developers who can do it.
In time, Java and VRML will provide the graphics-rich interactivity that we know from the CD-Rom world. Apprentice developers are just beginning to explore the possiblities of delivering on the Net.
The intranet - Internet applications for an internal network - provides a high-bandwidth for interactive applications. If you are equipping your staff with 25Mbps ATM connections to the desktop, you're equipping that desktop with networked video, data, sound and graphics. Give those users a browser that can access multimedia, and you have multimedia on the intranet.
WHERE THERE'S A WILL ...
There are a spectacular number of 'ifs' before the sort of functionality that we expect from CD-Roms arrives via a browser, but there's a clear direction and a will to make it work. One of the advantages is the rapid dissemination of technology on the Net.
In the good old Net tradition, new technologies are given away, source code is shared and users are encouraged to download free software. This means that the usual grind of developer conferences, software development kits, restricted beta programmes and cumbersome approvals is avoided.
Netscape has been leading the pack with its technique of bundling add-ins with the Web browser. Instead of trying to add multimedia features to its product, it relies on other companies to produce the necessary software. And those companies have not been slow in coming forward.
There are already 130 add-ins for Netscape, the most popular software programme with 38 million installations. And the most important of those is Shockwave, the Macromedia programme that allows developers to re-use multimedia material on the Web created in Director, still the most popular general-purpose multimedia development environment.
Last month, Macromedia was claiming two million downloads since December 1995 and a growth rate of more than 30 per cent a month. Recently, the company made Shockwave for Director 5 available. Shockwave has some influential supporters among the biggest US sites: Paramount, Disney, The Discovery Channel, Virgin, AT&T, Ernst & Young, and even Campbell's Soup uses Shockwave to add multimedia content.
Macromedia chairman Bud Colligan claims that Shockwave is a de facto standard for Web-based multimedia developers. 'We anticipate there will be 10 million to 20 million Shockwave-enabled browsers by the end of 1996.' That would be almost as many as the number of multimedia-equipped PCs currently being used, so it's a tall order for Macromedia.
Another reason is that Microsoft has a different idea about multimedia on the Web. While Netscape leaves non-core technology to third parties, Microsoft seeks to attract developers by using the browser to exploit the success of Visual Basic. This avoids the confusing possibility of having to choose between similar plug-ins that do the same thing, which means fragmenting the user base and potentially cutting off some users.
It's a problem that Stuart Edamura, a graphics technology analyst for Chevron US, foresees for developers. 'I'd like to see plug-ins built in to the browsers rather than have 100 different ones to worry about.
It's an extra barrier for your clients, and you have to ask, will they jump it?'
Andrew Crolla, technical director at Iterated Systems, hopes developers can avoid this problem. Iterated Systems produces software that enables fractal compression - a new algorithm that, using the FIF file format, produces remarkable compression results just right for a choked-up Internet.
'We have developed browser plug-ins for our FIF file formats, but they are not meant to replace GIFs or similar formats completely because many browsers can only display FIF files as an external window,' he says of the still image format. Crolla is hoping FIF images will be incorporated as one of the in-line file formats in Netscape and Microsoft browsers.
The opportunity is much greater for video, and fractal compression is merely used as a part of either Video for Windows or Quick Time, allowing existing multimedia applications to be used. 'Microsoft saved a CD-Rom disk by compressing its media in FIF format. But compression is not the most important factor for the online community - it's the speed of delivery that counts.
'Our still images can display a thumbnail with only 10 per cent of the file decompressed. On video, our strength is in the low-bandwidth market.
We wrap our algorithm around Video for Windows and Quick Time, which allows us to use standard development applications.'
Compression reduces the size of motion video so dramatically that a talking head on screen has a data rate of only 10Kbps. Crolla says: 'We are in the area that a 14.4 modem can provide the right data rate. At worst, we compress an order of magnitude better than other systems.'
GETTING WITH THE PROGRAMME
In the Microsoft universe, its Active X technology is being positioned as the way to allow developers to use existing Visual Basic applications on the Web. The lack of plug-ins imposes a direction for developers - and the world is not short of Visual Basic hackers.
While this will undoubtedly help with programmes like database publishing and providing a window to existing Windows applications for intranets, Visual Basic is not a good tool for producing rich content multimedia sites.
Sitting over all these technologies is Java, rapidly becoming the development environment of choice for Web developers. Despite the enthusiasm for Java, the current crop of applications, such as the 2,500-plus at Web site http://www. gamelan.com, are mostly small applets to provide stock tickers, basic animations and simple calculations. Jeered as 'bouncing heads' applications by Lotus executives to promote the Internet publishing capabilities of Notes, Java developers have a long way to go before they can deliver business applications with multimedia content.
But Netscape believes developers will turn to Java because to develop from scratch means only developing the application once. Using a plug-in or Visual Basic means either developing for one platform or duplicating your effort. 'We have a number of developers shipping on the platform and are working to increase support for enterprise developers,' says Netscape director of developer relations Donna Simonides.
'In our customer base, 68 per cent are doing development in a multiplatform environment. Developers don't want to write for both Mac and Windows.
We see Java picking up steam.'
JAVA DABBA DO
Netscape's Live Connect is a technology that bridges the gap between plug-ins and Java. It gives developers an evolutionary path between the capabilities of Java and its cross-platform nature, and the ready-made applications base that plug-ins provide.
With Microsoft also embracing Java, the way is clear for the world to develop the sort of sophisticated Java content that will deliver multimedia functionality on the Web. While that happens, we can think of upgrading the Internet's structure to deliver that content in seconds rather than days.
Multimedia content will come to the Web, but will no doubt be rehearsed on the corporate intranet first, where bandwidth problems are less severe.
But business has hardly embraced multimedia.
At least there's a proliferation of tools to do the job, and an evolutionary path to take existing content into the browser environment. Either Netscape or Microsoft may win the current battle over how to deliver that content, but eventually Java should win the war.
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