Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News Special Report: RealNetworks Conference 1998 4 May 98

Reported, written and edited by David Duberman for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send duberman@dnai.com
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RealNetworks Conference -- 1998 by Howard Dyckoff The third RealNetworks conference, held near the San Francisco airport, featured two days of technical and business sessions, developer networking, and a small exhibit pavilion. The star of the conference was the G2 (Generation 2) system of RealNetworks components, introduced at the conference. These shine with new media types (streaming text and a streaming version of LivePicture's LivePix, to be called RealPix), smarter codecs and overall performance and quality (details below). An enhanced version of the Real Encoder, called RealPublisher (available now in the 5.0 series, but soon fully supporting G2 media), simplifies streaming media web site creation and then publication of media pages to major ISPs. G2 will support more media types and file formats to simplify both developer work and client use. It will also implement two critical industry standards for interactive media: RTSP (Real Time Streaming Protocol), which is supported by the Internet Engineering Task Force, and SMIL (Synchronized Media Integration Language) which will allow choreographing to flow of various media types. Many of the RealNetworks partners are also implementing plug-ins based on these standards. Digital Renaissance, for example, announced a product called T.A.G. (Temporal Annotation Generator), which allows collateral streaming of link info in all media types, embedded scripts and commands, and/or executable files. G2 will simplify the TAG editor and streaming of the TAG information. (TAG is being developed for other media players as well.) RealNetworks founder and CEO Rob Glaser demonstrated G2 features and advantages in the first day's keynote. This included a claimed 80 percent improvement in quality for audio at 28.8Kpbs modem speeds. This is accomplished via the SmartStream technology, which allows a rapid response to different bit rates during the streaming process. to a client. This in turn relies on the new Adaptive Stream Manager (ASM) technology in G2 RealNetworks servers. Changes in bit rates are negotiated as media is streamed from the source file which, under G2, will have multiple encodings at different bit rates in the same file. Changes are then dynamic and transparent. Under G2, the RealPlayer will support audio streams at modem speeds 14.4 to 56 Kbps. Currently these are discrete files and 14.4 is not supportable. RealNetworks will continue with their two-tier strategy for servers and players. The G2 technology reportedly allows users to get a richer experience, even with typical packet loss across the Internet. This was demonstrated in the keynote. The RealPlayer Plus for G2 will feature a graphic equalizer and video controls similar to a TV remote. Along with the G2 announcements was an agreement with JavaSoft to include RealNetworks encoders, servers and players in the Java Media Framework (JMF). In actuality, the JMF will provide the class definitions to control the RealPlayers on each native platform. But this will greatly aid Java developers who need cutting edge media (compared to the unadorned audio and video players now in the JDK). During the keynote, Glaser cited stats showing a tripling of streaming multimedia use from 1996-97. The number of hours of streaming media (most audio, but video is growing faster) increased from just over 40,000 to just under 150,000. More than 75 percent of media players on the Internet are from RealNetworks. This is also a potential challenge to the current hegemony of the TV networks. Glaser cited an MSNBC survey of Internet users that showed that, on average, they spent as much time reading online news as reading a newspaper (3.5 hours per week) and that was over half as much time as they spent watching TV (6.5 hours). But many leading broadcasters and cable companies are current users of RealNetworks and most key companies announced support for G2. These include most major record companies, NPR, online news centers, and video feeds such as CNN Interactive, CBS Sportsline, etc. Another highlight of the keynote was a video conference link to Quincy Jones in Hollywood. The well-known musician and producer described his Q-radio project as a way of bringing obscure third-world music to the public via an Internet music site. Q-radio will show case musicians from around the world and allow sampling of albums that Q-radio will distribute or sell directly. The site will eventually use the G2 technology to synchronize lyrics (in several languages) and music. Conference attendees were given sample albums of a South African Band. Glaser played up the use of complex media both on the Internet and within the corporate intranet. He noted that about 25 percent of Fortune 500 firms are using or are planning to use RealNetwork's technology (either directly or via a partner company). This amounts to a huge potential market for media developers savvy in streaming media. Conference sessions explored a number of topics related to streaming media. Technical sessions on video and audio production focused on both the current version 5.0 products and the new G2 products. Several sessions dealt with important standards, such as SMIL. Vendor partners also demonstrated tools and companion products. One such vendor presentation, revealed general details of a first-of-its-kind manager suite of tools to better administer large streaming media sites. This includes better server monitoring and control and a full-featured media database. (This was a pre-announcement and we are barred from giving more details until the product announcement in early June). RealNetworks provided attendees with an incomplete conference CD. No documentation or presentation slides were included and developer SDK -- the jewel that many attendees were expecting -- was not included. No alpha versions of G2 were included either. Instead, 5.x version of RealPlayer, RealPublisher, and RealServer were included. For more information on RealSystem G2, visit http://www.real.com/g2/index.html.