Macromedia Streaming (1996)

Editor’s Note: We only use 28.8 modems.

One of the most striking similarities of most web pages is the lack of any sound. The net is deaf. Quietly clicking away without a single voice or note. There have been many attempts to break into this silent world which can be counted on one hand.

The downloadables: Stick a .wav file or a .aiff file on the server and make the user download the file and play it locally. The problem with this is that the average bandwidth on the web is a 14.4 modem. With the average user’s attention span being that of a three-year old hopped up on pixie sticks, waiting 5 minutes to download an audio file just aint gonna do the trick.

One decent way around this is using midi files. Instead of analog waves, digital music instructions are sent to the sound card to be interpreted locally. This results in incredibly small files. A complex 3 minute song can often be under 30k. The limitations are that no voice can be added and each sound card interprets the midi instructions differently. Yamaha just released a new plugin which is supposed to make all midi files sound the same on all sound cards. I can’t make mine work. (I’ll keep trying)

The streamers: This technology allows audio files to be played as they are downloading with a 10 second buffer. This download buffer technique gives a fast response to web users with short attention spans. The quality however has been under intense scrutiny.

The most popular of the streaming audio products is Real Audio. The sound quality is OK for speech but not quite up to the task of music.VDOlive raised the stakes with a 43:1 compression ratio which streams audio down to miniscule sizes to allow even faster buffering. VDO’s lack of popularity might be the result of bad marketing rather than an inferior product. Xing Technologies jumped into the fray with their product named Streamworks which gives decent quality and fast downloads. Streamworks came the closest to high quality audio but also failed to make a dent in Real Audio’s high market share.

On Monday, July 29, 1996, a breakthrough product emerged onto the web.

The latest version of Macromedia‘s Shockwave was released today with streaming audio attached. An ActiveX control was also included for MS Internet Explorer. I used this plugin for the first time today.

The sound quality was fabulous, far surpassing any of its peers. The streaming came through fast and with few sound interruptions. It was the best audio I’ve ever seen on a web site, period. It started playing immediately and sounded great. The control bar was a little big but I think that’s customizable. It had a glitch once when I tried to change songs midstream but let’s give it a break. It’s only 1 day old.

Assuming that the glitchiness is fixed in later versions, I think that Macromedia has a major breakthrough on their hands. Shockwave already has an installed user base and competes aggressively with Real Audio in Marketing. And to drive the final nail into the low-quality Real Audio coffin, Shockwave also has multimedia animation and lingo to even further embellish its usefullness. If you haven’t yet, please download the newest Macromedia Plugin and see what I’m talking about.

Goodbye Midi, Au revoir Real Audio, Sayonara .wav files. Hello Shockwave!

Editor’s Note: We don’t work for Macromedia. We just like the plugin.

Whatya think?