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Making It Easier

What is "rich media"? The term is an umbrella expression for content that contains multimedia elements such as sound and video, or content that moves when a visitor clicks on the page where the featured content is posted.

Rich media has a significant up sell. Properly done, rich media content such as streaming audio and video can visually display or explain a product or service in action, prompting the site visitor to make that purchase. Flash, a type of animated rich media content that can be viewed on a Web page and in a Web browser, can bring your site to life. For example, a user can click on a content element or icon in your product display and generate a visual demonstration of the product or service they wish to learn more about.

Rich media is actually a common term used to describe two technologies—Web-based animation and streaming.

Web-based animation is generally perceived to be animation that is authored using one or more sequential timelines in which actions and interactions are defined.

Streaming takes large sound, video, animation or other files, and breaks them into smaller pieces and sends them along to their destination. This process is very similar to how computers send information across a network or the Internet in general.

The pre-eminent form of Web-based rich media animation is Flash, an animated graphics technology and format from Macromedia. Macromedia's Flash MX, as well as many other third-party authoring programs, generates Flash files. These files, which can include sound, can be seen through a Web browser, or through multimedia builds that can be viewed through a Web browser plug-in (the Flash player).

Streaming media player software such as RealNetworks' RealOne player, Microsoft's Windows Media Player and Apple's QuickTime are able to read the file stream as it is coming in and begins playing—long before the rest of the file arrives. Imagine reading a novel as someone hands you page after page, rather than waiting for them to finish the whole book and handing you the entire novel at once.

If streaming only read the file and played it for you as it came in, you’d have a whole lot of interruptions. To make playback smooth, streaming media players combine another technology with streaming. This technology is called buffering.

During buffering, a large bunch of packets are collected before you hear or see them on your computer. As streaming media software begins to play the file, it continues to play packets in reserve. This means that even if there are minor delays in getting the information packets to your computer, the experience of the music or sound will be continuous rather than having to endure it stuttering along. 

That’s what streaming does. There’s a difference, though, between what streaming does and what streaming is.

Each stream carries specific types of information. When you watch a video, the content you see comes to you in one stream and the sound arrives in another. The streaming media software synchronizes these two separate streams. A good example is when a consumer watches a streaming newscast. The words come out of the anchorperson’s mouth at the same time his lips are moving. 

Additionally, streams can be optimized for different bandwidths. In this application, bandwidth is the amount of information that can pass through a particular point of the transmitting media (such as a phone line) within a given length of time. The higher the bandwidth, the greater the amount of information that can pass through in a given period of time. 

A Look at the Competitive Marketplace

At present, Macromedia's Flash is the uncontested leader in the rich media animation sector, and RealNetworks' RealOne and Microsoft's Windows Media Player are virtually even in the streaming media space.

Bundling has been a key strategy on the part of rich media software developers. The latest three versions of Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer Web browser, as well as versions 9, 8 and 7 of America Online's proprietary software, have come pre-bundled with copies of Flash Player. This means that a rich media Flash animation could be viewed by a user who was not required to download and install Flash. In fact, the trend has been toward transparency, with the rich media animation taking place "inside" the browser or email application, not inside a separate Flash window.

Streaming media software vendors have also pursued a bundling strategy. Given that Microsoft's Windows Media Player is under the same corporate roof as its Windows XP operating system, it is no surprise that Windows Media Player comes pre-loaded on Windows XP PCs. The same corporate synergy is evident with QuickTime, for which versions come pre-loaded on computers running Apple's Mac operating system.

RealNetworks does not have the built-in, OEM advantages. Instead, its strategy has been to aggressively pursue relationships with content providers who would encode streams in the Real format. The focus has been on incentivizing content providers to do this by emphasizing Real's head start to market its user base (which the company estimates has downloaded Real products more than 300 million times), and its new platforms for rich media consumption over mobile devices.

A September 2003 study from NPD Online found that 98 percent of Web users were able to access at least some Flash content—in large measure because of the browser bundling referenced above. The figures for Windows Media Player, RealOne (and its predecessor, RealPlayer) and QuickTime were 62, 56 and 47 percent, respectively.

A Look at Business Models

Rich media companies do not make the lion's share of their income from selling media players to consumers. All make their core product available for free download. Only Apple and RealNetworks sell an enhanced version of their streaming media player. The price points of $19.95 for RealOne Plus and $29.95 for QuickTime Pro are relatively low.

For rich media vendors, the business model is mainly on the developer side. The main strategy is to include feature sets in the authoring software that will drive content providers and developers to design compelling rich media features for their audiences. In this framework, developers will invest heavily in back-end authoring tools along with the infrastructure to deliver them.

The expectation is that the availability of this content will encourage end users to ensure they have the latest version of rich media software. The number of these downloads and the rising user base will then be recycled as a new round of marketing ammunition intended to motivate rich media developers to invest further in new authoring tools and infrastructure. These infrastructure demands have also stimulated the growth of hosting services specializing in the hosting of streaming media content.  

The Business Model for Content Providers

Rich media is increasingly seen as a strategy to promote Web site "stickiness," content subscriptions and, perhaps most of all, a way for Web marketers to stand out from the crowd with compelling, eye-catching presentations.

Reflecting rich media's ability to vividly demonstrate products and services, a number of companies specialize in providing Flash and streaming media advertising and platforms.

The content that their solutions enable are just as likely to be viewed within an existing Web page as through streaming or other rich media software. Eyeblaster Inc. (http://www.eyeblaster.com/ offers "floating ads" with moving, engaging characters that dance across the screen when the viewer visits a specific Web page.

The 3D-like effect makes the ad seem to float on top of the page. Content on such ads can be product-themed: for example, an electronics retailer could show someone turning on a high-definition-compatible television, and have that ad "float" on a television product catalog page.

Unicast Communications Corp. (http://www.unicast.com/) offers similar technology, with Over-Page and In-Page options for making animated content relative to a particular product appear within the Web page, or sitting (but not floating) on top of it.

Point Roll (http://www.pointroll.com/) is another vendor that offers rich media, animated ads that appear on top or within Web pages. Their unique claim to fame is a series of pre-designed animated characters that can easily be customized to appear as the main character of Flash-animated Web pages. Fat Boy, a rather stout young man with a propeller head, is available for such duty. For those who wish to fiddle with the Fat Boy character, the customization specs for Fat Boy and fellow characters Bad Boy and Towel Boy are posted on Point Roll's site.

All of the major rich media technology providers can point to numerous uses of their technology in the consumer marketplace. Companies as varied as IBM and Pepperidge Farm have used Flash animations in their Web-based advertising. Hewlett-Packard and MasterCard use the RealOne platform for corporate use, and a wide variety of broadcasting and entertainment organizations have subscription-based models for access to some of their streaming media content. QuickTime has been especially aggressive in the education and entertainment sectors. Microsoft has also successfully targeted these sectors, and has also promoted Windows Media Player for delivery of in-house corporate training over company intranets. Partners include General Mills and Mercedes-Benz USA.

What's Ahead

As rich media technology vendors enhance their products, the rich media "arms race" will continue for the foreseeable future. Increasingly, though, the battle will not be fought on the desktop, but on mobile devices. Chip-driven advances in PDA and 3G phone technology are promoting the use of rich media interfaces and applications on these devices.

Rich media vendors have heard the call. The new Flash MX 2004 suite of tools is capable of delivering Flash content to mobile devices. Such mobile technology giants as Motorola, Ericsson and Palm have agreements in place to offer RealNetworks' new RealMobile streaming media player. And, in 2003, Microsoft re-branded its Pocket PC operating platform as Windows Mobile, announcing rich-media-enabling content partnerships with mobile OEMs including Samsung, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. And new 3GPP technology included in QuickTime 6.4 is a multimedia technology that facilitates QuickTime-compliant rich media content playback on cellular telephones and other mobile devices.

Rich media applications continue to be created on evolving and enhanced platforms. Wired and wireless Internet connections will be faster, and devices will be more powerful, enhancing the experience for the end user. Marketers are noticing this cycle, and hopping aboard with eagerness and zeal. For rich media solution providers, as well as the companies who use these applications, these trends promise a dynamic and innovative set of possibilities.

Russell Shaw is a financial and technology author-journalist based in Portland, Oregon. His 1996 book, "Official Netscape Guide to Online Investments," was one of the first books ever published in that category. He writes regularly about technology...

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