Web players are not just for show

Web players are not just for show<@VM>Players can burn CDs, support many formats

Streaming media players bring easy-to-use audio and video files to government sites

By David Essex

Special to GCN

Casual Web surfers are familiar with streaming media players, the little utilities that pop up to load and play MPEG movies and MP3 audio files. Behind those handy tools are entire multimedia platforms that an increasing number of government agencies are using to add sound and video to their public Web sites, while augmenting intranets with training videos and other multimedia content.

NASA uses RealPlayer software for webcasts on its site, such as one showing the docking of the Progress cargo ship with the International Space Station.

The Federal Communications Commission, for example, placed a video greeting from Chairman William Kennard in a prominent place on its home page, at www.fcc.gov. The Defense Department is a major user, offering daily RealAudio news reports at www.army.mil/srtv/apnb.htm, for example, and RealVideo Army training videos at www.adtdl.army.mil/atdls.htm.

Streaming media players, quite simply, are used to play a variety of audio and video files stored on the Web or on disk without requiring you to load the program in which they were created or some other more complicated multimedia program.

You click on the file's name or icon, either in your Web browser or PC directory window, and the player pops up automatically to load the file and play it back.

Concentrated data

The most common type played are streaming media files, so named because they appear in a stream of data that can be played before all the bits have been downloaded. Behind the scenes, a compressor/decompressor, or codec, decompresses the data, which was compressed and shipped off by a codec running on a streaming media server.

Players can also play back files that have been saved on disk. Among the more common file formats'which are identified with the same filename extensions whether streamed off the Web or played from disk'are .avi, .mpg and QuickTime movie files and .mp3, .wav and .midi files. The players can also display still graphics images stored in popular formats such as GIF and Joint Photographic Experts Group.

There are only a handful of Web players in the market, and only two are of any real importance to government information technology managers.

The undisputed market leader is RealNetworks Inc., whose RealSystem technology includes the widely and freely available RealPlayer, along with RealProducer for creating content and RealServer for serving content. RealNetworks also created the proprietary but widely used RealAudio and RealVideo file formats.

The up-and-comer is Microsoft Corp., whose streaming media technology goes under the name of Windows Media Services and includes the Windows Media Player, the proprietary Windows Media Format and content-creation tools.

Apple Computer Inc. created and actively markets its QuickTime format and related software, but like the company's Macintosh computer, QuickTime is primarily a favorite of graphic artists, publishers, film studios and other Mac users and has little presence in government.

Late in June, Yahoo Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., released Yahoo Player, which is targeted even more to consumers than the others and built on the Microsoft platform.

The players come with useful supporting tools, such as online guides to downloadable files, play lists for storing and managing favorite files and, lately, tuners for listening to the growing number of radio stations that are accessible over the Web. Microsoft and RealNetworks recently upgraded their players.

All the players on the market are aimed squarely at consumers, but they also use the same client software for server-based streaming media platforms'the real nexus of the action in government IT departments. You need the software to stream media files to potentially thousands of public and private users simultaneously.

Apple, Microsoft and RealNetworks all market server software and related content creation products. RealNetworks sells RealServer 8, which starts at $1,995 for 60 viewers'a free version allows up to 25. RealServer 8 supports the most platforms of any of the servers: Windows NT, Linux and SunSoft Solaris.

Microsoft markets Windows Media Services as a free feature included with Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000. It only runs on Windows, though it supports playback of most formats except RealNetworks'.

A good try

Apple's QuickTime 4.1.2 works on both Mac and Windows platforms, with support for more than 30 formats. It can be downloaded for free; the Pro version is priced at $30.

RealNetworks has tried harder to make its products the common format for streaming media, while Microsoft is taking a more proprietary approach in hopes of propagating its platform, according to Richard Doherty, director of research at the Envisioneering Group, a market research company in Seaford, N.Y.

For example, RealNetworks recently announced it has licensed both QuickTime and Windows Media Format. Microsoft's player will read QuickTime files but none of the RealNetworks formats.

'By feature sets alone, the players would seem to be well-matched,' Doherty says. 'However ' if you go to a site and come across multiple file formats, you're more likely to play it with Real Entertainment Center.'

Microsoft retorts that many of those additional formats are old and little-used. It also claims to have the most scalable platform, based on ZD Labs tests in which a Windows 2000 Advanced Server streamed up to 9,000 videos concurrently. RealNetworks claims its competing RealServer Professional can stream around 2,000 videos.

Doherty and the player product managers said the technology is progressing in modest increments, with gradual improvements in sound and video quality.

Recent enhancements include the ability to stream media to portable devices, such as MP3 players and Zip drives from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah, and performance improvements for videos streamed over broadband networks.

Player software has recently acquired more CD features, including copying CD content to the PC and burning CDs with a recordable CD drive.

Also new are utilities for downloading and quickly opening or executing other file types, and for webcasting Microsoft PowerPoint slide presentations.

Doherty said there is some hope that file formats may start to converge on MPEG-4, an emerging industry standard based on the QuickTime format.

The accompanying chart shows a confusing assortment of products with names similar to those of RealNetworks'.

To simplify, remember that Real Entertainment Center is a bundle that contains RealPlayer, RealJukebox and RealDownload, all of which are also available separately.

'Plus' on the end of the name means that a few extra features have been added for a nominal cost over the free version.

As for checklist items, the key ones are supported platforms, the number of supported file formats and cost per concurrent user

What you won't find in any checklist is information about playback performance and image quality. Both are mostly in the eye of the beholder, and you can judge for yourself by downloading the entry-level servers and players for free.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer in Antrim, N.H.

VendorProductMedia*Supported platformsDownload utilityNumber of formats supportedCD burningPrice
Apple Computer Inc.
Cupertino, Calif.
QuickTime 4.1.2Audio, video (1)Mac OS, Win9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000No30 plusNoFree
QuickTime 4.1.2 ProAudio, video (1)Mac OS, Win9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000No30 plusNo$30
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
Windows Media Player 7AllWin98, Win 2000; Unix variants on older versionsNo20YesFree
RealNetworks Inc.
Real Entertainment Center BasicAllWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000Yes40 plusYesFree
Real Entertainment Center PlusAllWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000Yes40 plusYes$50
RealPlayer8 BasicAllWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000; Mac OS, Linux, Solaris, SCO UnixWareNo40 plusNoFree
RealPlayer8 PlusAllWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000; Mac OS, Linux, Solaris, SCO UnixWareNo40 plusNo$30
RealJukebox 2AudioWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000No10 plusYesFree
RealJukebox 2 PlusAudioWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000No10 plusYes$30
RealDownload 4DownloadsWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000YesN/ANoFree
Real Download 4 PlusDownloadsWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000YesN/ANo$30
Yahoo Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Yahoo! PlayerAllWin9x, NT 4.0, Win 2000No28NoFree
VendorProductContent creation tools includedPlatformsNumber of users per licenseTypes of formats servedAuthen- ticationPrice
Apple Computer Inc.QuickTime Streaming Server 2.0.1YesMac OS (open-source Darwin version supports NT, Win 2000, Free BSD, Linux, Solaris)Unlimited (2)QuickTimeYesFree
Microsoft Corp.Windows Media ServicesYesNT 4.0, Win 2000Unlimited (3)Windows MediaYesFree
RealNetworks Inc.RealServer Basic 7.0NoNT, Win 2000, Linux, Solaris, Free BSD25RealSystem G2 (includes 15 third-party formats)NoFree
RealServer Plus 7.0NoSame60SameNo$1,995
RealServer Professional 7.0YesSame100 to 2,000SameYes$5,595 up
RealServer IntranetYesSame500SameYes$9,995 up
* "All" means the product comes with players for streaming audio and video and a dedicated tuner for accessing radio stations over the Web.

(1) Does not have built-in radio tuner, but QuickTime-playable radio stations are available in Hot Picks section at www.apple/quicktime.

(2) The server license does not limit the number of users, but Apple claims the ability to support more than 2,000 low-bandwidth media streams.

(3) The server license does not limit the number of users, but Microsoft claims the ability to support more than 9,000 low-bandwidth media streams.

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