Riffs and clicks

The technology that allows us to download and play multimedia files in real time is more than a recreational tool - it can add...

The technology that allows us to download and play multimedia files in real time is more than a recreational tool - it can add real value to your customer-facing business. All we need is a little more broadband.

The diversity of media formats that can be supported via the Web has increased apace with the huge improvement in the performance of PCs. Whereas in the past Web servers could realistically cope only with graphics and text, it is now increasingly easy to include audio and video aspects to enhance the look, style and worth of a site. The advent and growth of streaming media - audio and video that starts to play back as soon as you click to download it - means that large multimedia files can be viewed faster and end-user workstations have less bulk to deal with.

According to Richard Wigley, vice-president of product development at BT's hosting and media services division, streaming media can create a more compelling user experience. Whether on a company website, where it

can be used in advertising, product demonstration or customer support, or within a company's intranet, where it is useful for training and sales videos and videoconferencing, streaming media can have a great effect on sales, brand equity, productivity and cost

reduction. Streaming content, it seems, is the new big step for the Web, and its use is growing at a phenomenal rate.

As with any technology, the driver behind the improvement in standard and subsequent increase in usability is competition. There are three main companies offering streaming media players - Apple, Microsoft and RealNetworks, (Microsoft's Windows Media Player and RealNetworks' RealPlayer are currently battling it out for the top spot). These media players are essential to view any streaming content, and are often offered free to end-users. RealPlayer is the most established player, but Microsoft has caught up fast and the quality produced by each of these main players is similar. Although each have certain advantages, when it comes to creating streaming content it's really a matter of which one is available to most people which determines choice of media player.

There are four main steps to consider in the streaming process: encoding, hosting, distribution and interactivity.

Encoding involves taking video or audio content and digitising it for a media player, using a codec (coder-decoder). The encoding has a direct effect on the speed that the video/audio is played back and the size and the quality of the material, so who the audience is and the size of the download are important considerations. To cover all bases and reach the widest audience it makes sense to encode in both the leading formats.

Once the video or audio has been encoded, it has to be stored somewhere. Some companies have their own media server, but it is possible to outsource to an expert company to host media files. The main points to consider are again the size of the media files to be hosted, the amount of time they will be stored and the access requirements.

Distribution is simply how the file is requested by the end-user, and how it gets there. For Web-based applications this is usually as simple as activating a hyperlink on a Web page. Of course there are issues to be taken into account such as file size and potential popularity of the video/audio clips, but again all this can be dealt with on your behalf by a specialist company.
The final component of a streaming

media project is interactivity. In some ways this is the most important as it directly contributes to the user's viewing experience. Using SMIL (synchronised multimedia integration language) a host of fancy tricks can be added to your media streaming to make the whole thing more interactive - and if a user can truly interact with the streaming content, real opportunities begin to emerge to increase brand integrity, and thereby increase sales and productivity or reduce costs.

The predominant issue for streaming media is bandwidth. For any streamed content to be viewed at its best, a high bandwidth is needed. Unfortunately, there is a problem at present with this in the UK, where most users have a dial-up modem connection speed of 56kbps. At this rate, although reasonable results can be obtained, the capabilities of streaming media are limited. Ideally, the higher the data rates the better, so the sooner broadband access becomes more widespread in the UK, the better for streaming media.

Theoretically, it is or will be possible to stream any video or audio clips that can be broadcast on other media (but with added interactivity), so it's just a question of when and to what extent it could be used, and whether it is financially viable.

There are so many variables that the cost of a streaming media project is difficult to estimate on a general level. Depending on the quality and size of files and the skill sets already present, streaming in-house could cost anything from a couple of thousand pounds to tens of thousands. For your first attempts to use it, it is probably more economical to outsource much of the work to a hosting company. Once the benefits of streaming media are and become measurable in terms of sales, for example, then any cost of outsourcing could become relatively insignificant.

Although streaming media seems quite complicated, it can be surprisingly simple to get good results. The technology is certainly with us; it's just a matter of getting it out to a wider population by increasing bandwidth. When that happens, streaming content looks set to revolutionise the Web as we know it today, and there will be significant gains to be had for businesses.

Case study: Classical.com
Classical.com is a company that allows users to download classical music from its website. It has one of the largest collections of classical recordings available on the Web. As Roger Press, one of the founders of Classical.com, explains: "We believe that the best way to enjoy music is to listen to it. We have, therefore, set up a streaming subscription service where users can listen to music online. What makes streaming so exciting is that even on 56k modems it sounds as good as radio. And seeing as more people will have broadband connections in the next few years, streaming will be the best way to listen to the music from our database."

To set up the streaming operation, Classical.com has encoded all the music in both RealPlayer and Microsoft Media Player formats, which makes it available to a large population and has outsourced to an expert hosting company, which made the whole process relatively easy. Press says: "More and more of the computers sold today have streaming software pre-installed, file sizes are becoming high quality at very compressed data rates, and the cost of bandwidth is gradually coming down.

"On the consumer side, there is still not an established habit of turning to your PC or Mac for music, but that is growing and in the US and in some European countries there are users who are actively streaming music a lot. In time, we believe that the delivery of our service to interactive TV and the mobile third-generation phones will increase the market size considerably."

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