I have to start off this week's column with a confession: if you had asked me two years ago whether RealAudio would still be around in 1997, I probably would have laughed.
RealAudio was the first application of streaming media to be commercially viable on the Internet. Introduced in mid-1995 by Progressive Networks, RealAudio was supposed to bring audio to the Internet without long download waits.
Before this technology, sound files came largely in the form of Windows WAV or Macintosh AV files. Both of these formats had terrific sound quality, but at a high price: since those files were often a megabyte or more in size, it could take minutes to download a 15-second sound bite.
The problem with WAV and AU sound files was that they had to be downloaded in their entirety before they could be played. Frankly, it usually wasn't worth waiting a minute or so to hear, "Game over, man!" from Aliens. And if these delays were annoying to Harvard students, blessed as we are with fast direct connections to the Internet, they were intolerable; to the digital unwashed masses trying to listen via a telephone line.
Progressive Network's RealAudio technology, on the other hand, allows Web surfers to listen to sound as it's downloading. Click on a RealAudio link, and a few seconds later you're listening to news, sports or music from your computer's speakers.
Unlike previous sound formats, which emphasized quality at all costs, RealAudio was designed to sacrifice some sound quality for the sake of expediency. By using compression and special client/server software, the delays of the past disappeared. Instead of the Internet sound restricted to short sound clips, multiple-hour programs and even live broadcasts were now possible; you only download as much as you want hear.
But one complaint about RealAudio 1.0 was that sound quality was sacrificed too much. Progressive Networks claimed that the sound quality was as good as an AM broadcast radio. Unfortunately, it sounded like WBZ 1040 sounds when you're driving through the Sumner Tunnel.
And initially, there were few providers of RealAudio files. ABC and NPR were early adopters, but there was little else to listen to. And the novelty of hearing Bob Edward's smooth baritone garbled by RealAudio faded fast when you could hear the same programming better via a $10 radio.
So I was a bit cynical at first about the future of RealAudio. Fortunately, I turned out to be completely wrong.
For one thing, future releases of RealAudio vastly improved the sound quality; by RealAudio 3.0, the sound was consistently better than an AM radio.
More importantly, there are now hundreds of Web sites presenting RealAudio programming. One of the most fascinating is the AudioNet site (www.audionet.com), which has links to everything from live sporting events to live Internet broadcasts.
RealAudio has become a fixture of the Web, but Progressive Networks isn't resting on their laurels. They just introduced RealVideo, which applies their streaming technology to video files.
Like the first release of RealAudio, there are some problems with the quality of RealVideo broadcasts, and sites frequently don't work quite right. In fact, video takes up so much band width that you have to have an ISDN or direct connection (like our Harvard connectivity) and a Pentium or PowerPC-based computer to use it.
But there's something exciting about seeing live television via your computer. RealVideo is the only way to see Fox News Channel and C-SPAN anytime, day or night.
--Kevin Davis is director of HASCS's Advanced Support Team and an independent computer consultant. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org