Streaming Data and Consciousness

(This column first appeared in the October 29, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been inundated with a variety of press releases dealing with YASDT – Yet Another Streaming Data Type. I’ll state right off the bat that new Internet data types don’t thrill me. In fact, I despise them. I believe that I already have to deal with more data types than I really need, and don’t like the idea of having to add more to that list. That said, some of the streaming data demonstrations I’ve seen have been impressive.

Streaming Primer

For those of you not familiar with what streaming data is all about, let me give you a small primer.

As you are probably aware, things like graphics, video, and sound take up a lot of data if you want them to convey a reasonable amount of information When the Web became a popular thing to support and use, people discovered rather quickly that it takes a while to download multi-hundred kilobyte media files, just to hear someone talk, or see a video clip. What made these download experiences extra painful was that they had to complete in order for the media to be accessible.

“Streaming” changed all this, by changing the way data was sent from a Web server, and interpreted on the client side of things. The server, with the aid of specialized handshaking, keeps a steady stream of media data streaming to the client, while a special “player” on the client side sucks up the data stream, and plays it back on the fly.

Progressive Networks, of Seattle, WA, with its RealAudio technology, was among the first to offer streaming media, initially for sound. Currently, on a 28.8 Kbps link, RealAudio can play full stereo, near-CD quality sound in real-time.

Streaming Business Model

The way Progressive makes money is by selling add-on server software to handle the streaming data. The average cost per RealAudio server stream is $85. The client-side player is free, although the company does have an upgraded client-side player that offers a few extra bells and whistles for sale. I should also mention that Progressive sells tools for encoding sound and multimedia into the necessary format for streaming.

The server stream pricing model works, but only for the time being. The disadvantage Progressive has (and already knows of) is that their revenue stream depends on an add-on to existing server software. Companies making server software have realized that in order to differentiate themselves from each other, they need to come to market with streaming server technology themselves. And once it’s in the server software, it’s basically free. No more add-ons required.

To Progressive’s credit, they have managed to sign up an impressive list of customers, including ABC, NPR, and dozens of other news and music sites. They also realize that their model, as it currently stands, cannot support them for long, so they have launched a number of initiatives to try to keep a step ahead of the pack.

Streaming Evolution

Apparently, Progressive realized early on that the same technology that allowed audio to be streamed would also allow other data types to be streamed. Thus was born the recently announced RealMedia Architecture (RMA). RMA builds on the streaming technology in RealAudio, but extends the server add-on so that multiple data tracks can be sent in parallel in a stream by the server, while an updated client can take the data tracks and pass them to the appropriate player on a users’ system. The players are part of a new client-side plug-in architecture which allows third parties to developed RMA-compatible players. So far, RMA sports support from companies offering video, MIDI, graphics, and more. According to Pat Boyle, Progressive’s product manager for RealMedia Tools, RMA will ship in December.

RTSP

On the other front, Progressive, with the help of 40 other companies, including Apple, Autodesk/Kinetix, HP, IBM SGI, Sun, Macromedia, and Netscape, has announced a standards initiative called the Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) for delivery of real-time media over the Internet. The first draft of the protocol specification, RTSP 1.0, was submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) a few weeks ago. RTSP is basically the handshaking mechanism for streaming.

Progressive will provide a reference implementation of RTSP. Why would Progressive do something that might kill its business?

First, Progressive is attempting to ensure that when a standard is passed (which would ultimately happen with or without their involvement), Progressive’s technology is not outdated and does not have to be revised. In other words, if you propose the standard, you control it, to a certain point. This is part of the typical Microsoft standardization procedure, not surprising when you consider that Progressive’s founders came primarily from Microsoft. Where Progressive differs from Microsoft is that they aren’t dictating the standard to others – instead they are collaborating with others to bring it to fruition.

The second reason Progressive can afford to bring RTSP to completion is because it’s only part of the equation. Anyone wanting to implement RTSP still needs to develop or buy tools to encode data for streaming, and also would need to develop multi-stream players. With the RMA client plug-in player model, and the partnerships announced, Progressive has a serious head start there.

However, the aforementioned server software companies, most notably Microsoft and Netscape, are already on the move.

Microsoft’s NetShow

Microsoft has a new technology in development called NetShow, Beta 2 of which should be out by the time you read this. Microsoft, for the time being, is looking at RTSP, but not supporting it. According to Jim Durkin, Microsoft’s Manager of the Network Multimedia Product Unit, his company will support RTSP if it becomes widely used and adopted by the IETF, but until then is holding the specification under review and will continue working on its own technology, NetShow.

NetShow is a multiple data type streaming and CODEC mechanism, but it’s not being pushed as being as general purpose (in terms of breadth of data types) as RMA. NetShow’s focus is audio, video, URLs, GIFs, and JPEGs, and the server component of the software, once released, will become a standard item in Windows NT Server Edition (it won’t run on the Workstation version of NT) and Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS). The NetShow client will be standard with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 4.0. Jim Durkin also told me that in current tests, on a 200MHz Pentium Pro system, NetShow has been able to support 1,000 simultaneous 28.8 Kbps streams. Pretty impressive, especially if it’s basically free…

Netscape’s MediaServer

Netscape, a public supporter of RTSP, has announced Media Server 1.0, which is supposed to be part of the new version of the company’s SuiteSpot server software when it ships at the end of the year. Media Server, which is supposed to adhere to RTSP, will initially only deal with audio information, but that still provides something that’s almost as good as RealAudio for free (RealAudio offers better quality, based on Netscape’s specifications). Netscape’s big pitch is the cost (or the lack thereof) as well as the ability to add synchronized sound to Java and JavaScript applications resident on a Web site. I would bet that streaming video isn’t far behind, once the company is happy with the performance and stability of the initial release of Media Server.

Macromedia’s Shockwave and Audioactive

I would be remiss if I didn’t include Macromedia’s streaming technology in this overview. Macromedia’s Shockwave technology was perhaps the first major  multi-content streaming technology on the market, and with a price of zero for delivery, certainly attractive. Note that Shockwave doesn’t require special servers to stream data – the Shockwave player happens to be able to take data in small chunks and do something with it, which is in effect, similar to streaming, but without the handshaking and VCR like controls for server data that Progressive and NetShow offer. I should also point out that Macromedia is not doing Shockwave solely for altruistic motives – Macromedia makes its money from the tools it sells to create Shockwave content.

Now, in just the last week, while at the same time supporting RTSP, Macromedia has teamed up with Telos to produce Audioactive, a direct competitor to RealAudio. Macromedia officials claim that Audioactive is a better deal than RealAudio because Audioactive’s server pricing is per server and not per stream. Macromedia claims that its customers will only pay around $7,000 for between 100 and 200 simultaneous streams vs. $8,500 to $17,000 for a RealAudio server solution (using Pat Boyle’s $85/stream cost figure).

I personally think it’s a bit late for Macromedia to be getting into the audio stream server market at a time when Progressive is moving past that type of technology, and Netscape and Microsoft are offering the same technology pretty much for free.

Down Stream

I think decent, wide-spread, and affordable streaming technology and tools are second in importance only to micro-payments on the Internet. Without good streaming technology, the Internet can’t be used as the multimedia backbone it is destined to become.

While it may not be obvious, the success of the Internet (and therefore streaming technology) is important to those of us in the PC graphics industry – just think of all the bundling, support, and acceleration opportunities available for various streaming data types like audio, video, MIDI, and 3D.