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Making streaming media useful

October 22, 1999
Web posted at: 10:44 a.m. EDT (1444 GMT)

by Nicholas Petreley, InfoWorld columnist


(IDG) -- The Internet is a wonderful hybrid medium, isn't it? It's a shame that we still tend to think inside the box when it comes to publishing content on the Web.

For example, many Web publications still treat the Internet as if it is the electronic equivalent of a print magazine, although that's been getting better over the last couple of years.

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Likewise, I can see that some sites are stuck in the age of television when it comes to streaming video. Streaming video on the Internet isn't very popular yet as a medium for obvious reasons. As long as the pipes are limited, it can only aspire to give you the kind of multimedia experience you get from television.

But streaming video over the Internet offers some things you can't get from television -- flexibility being the most important. For one thing, if you miss a television event and fail to set your VCR to record it, there's no telling when you'll get another chance to see it. It could be a matter of hours or a matter of months. However, if it is an Internet broadcast, chances are good that you can view it anytime you want.

That's the first obvious advantage: the ability to view what you want when you want. But some sites don't even get this concept yet. For example, take I enjoy listening to some of Dr. Gene Scott's lectures, and I can now get to them over the Internet. However, I don't tune in very often because the site does everything wrong.

First of all, the broadcast is billed as live, but it's no more than a streaming version of the television broadcast. The television broadcast is almost always just a series of reruns of the previous lectures.

This totally ignores the power of the Internet. What I want to do is pick the topic or lecture. But what I get is whatever happens to be on. Just like television. Only worse. Because you get the broadcast with the abysmal quality of streaming video.

The site, on the other hand, is a good example of what you get when you do it right. This site -- sponsored by VA Linux Systems, Red Hat, and Linuxcare -- hosts a number of seminars you can view with RealNetworks' Real Player.

So far, has hosted talks by Tim O'Reilly, of O'Reilly and Associates; Jon "Maddog" Hall, executive director of Linux International; Jeremy Allison, co-creator of Samba; and analysts Dan Kusnetzk at IDC and Greg Weiss at DH Brown. Naturally, you get to pick which speaker you want to watch.

I had been meaning to visit this site, but, as you may have figured out from the description above, I'm not yet a big fan of streaming video. So, when I finally got around to it, I planned to watch only a couple of minutes of one of the presentations -- just enough to get an idea of what they are like.

Instead, I eventually browsed through all of them. It wasn't the content that held my interest. Don't get me wrong. The introduction is professionally done, and these folks are excellent speakers. But these aren't the kinds of seminars that hold my attention. They're designed more for IT managers who don't fully understand the origins or value of open-source software.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated enough to browse through all of the talks because the producer of the material understood the medium.

When you run one of these seminars, not only do you get the talking head in the Real Player, but you also get a mini slide show in the browser. There are only a half-dozen slides for each seminar, and they're not terribly interesting.

But it's not the number of slides or the information that matters. What impressed me is that you can click on any slide topic, and the Real Player will automatically advance or rewind to that portion of the talk. The slides function as place markers, which is a clever and useful idea.

I'm still not a big fan of streaming video. The video usually doesn't add enough to the presentation to keep your visual attention, but it's sometimes useful to leave a Real Player running in the background and lend it an ear.

But, I have a feeling we haven't even scratched the surface of what's possible. If you designed a site that included streaming media technology, what would you do differently from what you've seen?

Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld.

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