The Evolution of Rich Media

Flash traces its beginnings to an animation tool called FutureSplash, debuted by FutureWave Software in 1992. By 1996, Disney Online was using FutureSplash for animated content on its subscription based online service Disney Daily Blast. In December of 1996, Macromedia bought FutureWave Software and FutureSplash Animator, the design tool at the heart of the technology, became Macromedia Flash 1.0.

Over the next several years, Macromedia issued several updates to Flash. Most of these were improvements that have changed the nature of Flash from a simple Web drawing and animation package to a full multimedia development environment. The biggest leap forward took place in March 2002 when Macromedia released the Flash MX developer tool in tandem with Flash Player 6. The application and associated software made a whole host of new rich media applications available—including Web-based e-commerce forms and compatibility with mobile devices.

The latest Flash upgrade hit the market in summer 2003. Plug-ins to Flash Player 6 and the new Flash Player 7 made other new applications possible, such as a module where online shoppers could save information seen in a rich media animation to their hard drives for subsequent view. These enhancements took place in the new Flash MX 2004 developer environment, released at the same time. was an early adopter.

The Way It Streams From Here

The earliest days of the Web were characterized by what is commonly described as “static” media—text and still photos, little more than “brochureware” on a computer screen.

In the mid-1990s, the Internet exploded from a text-based system to one that contained pictures, even sounds, videos and animations

When a company then known as Progressive Networks first released RealAudio 1.0 in 1995, at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention, everything changed. Although early versions were far less advanced than today’s state-of-the-art RealOne, people could first hear sounds, and later see images over the Internet—not via download but at the time the actual event occurred or the content was delivered. This so-called streaming media technology not only enabled real-time witnessing of audio and video images on the Web, but also listening and viewing on demand without having to wait for lengthy download times of the earlier audio and video delivery. With this streaming technology, the Web user could enjoy the content immediately, as it was being “streamed. Almost immediately after it was released, RealAudio became the Web’s most popular standard for audio broadcasting.

In April 1997, Progressive Networks took another transcending step, launching RealVideo. Immediately, it changed the way videos are transmitted over the Internet, from time-consuming downloads to real-time viewing. The product was bundled with RealAudio in RealPlayer 4.0. For the product’s debut, three short films featuring acclaimed director Spike Lee were offered on the site of what was then Progressive Networks. Within 24 hours, viewers downloaded more than 100,000 copies of RealPlayer 4.0.

Progressive Networks changed its name to RealNetworks in September 1997. The fact that RealAudio and RealVideo both made it possible to see and hear content over the Web in “real” time was a major impetus for this new identity.

RealNetworks released RealPlayer 5.0 in October 1997. RealPlayer G2, a quantum leap in streaming media technology, made its entry in October 1998. Subsequent versions have been released about every 18 months since then. RealOne, the latest version of RealPlayer, made its debut in 2001.

Microsoft was soon on Progressive Networks' heels. NetShow made its debut in September 1996 as a streaming media-playing companion to primitive, built-in Media Player technology included since the earliest versions of Windows. The division of labor was thus: NetShow played the streams, and Media Player was used to play audio content, such as tracks on a music CD that a user placed in his or her PC's CD drive.

NetShow's first edition, known as NetShow 1.0, had basic streaming media audio technology, including access to a few of the streaming radio stations who were offering their programming over the Internet. The release was widely seen as a competitive reaction against RealPlayer, the leading streaming media software at the time. RealPlayer, from RealNetworks (then known as Progressive Networks), first appeared in 1995.

At that time, Microsoft promoted NetShow more as a platform for developers to design streaming media content than for consumers to listen and watch such content. The company replicated the strategy in NetShow 2.0, which came out in 1997. Some 11 million people downloaded NetShow that year, and were able to take advantage of the updated version’s better use of bandwidth.

Bandwidth improvement took a leap forward with the release of NetShow 3.0 in mid-1998. The company had bought a streaming media player company called Vextreme in late 1997, an acquisition that gave it new tools for managing bandwidth-intensive streaming video content. Providers such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC signed aboard to deliver video to site visitors with NetShow 3.0 on their desktops.

NetShow kept working on gradual improvements. In October 1999, Microsoft re-branded NetShow into a full streaming media product known as Windows Media Player 6. Unlike NetShow, the new WMP ran on Microsoft's proprietary streaming audio and video formats, and brought the former functions of Media Player in to form an all-in-one media player solution.

Windows Media Player 7 came to the market in the summer of 2000, offering enhanced streaming audio and video playback, compatibility with MP3 files, and, befitting Napster's huge popularity at that time, a built-in CD burner. Media guides where users could search for streaming audio and video content on the Web were embedded into WMP 7. For the first time, users could also customize their copy of WMP by choosing from a library of more than 20 skins.

Microsoft never released a "Windows Media Player 8" as such, instead branding "8" as a developer tool for improved audio and video encoding. Although it was still called Windows Media Player 7, a de facto "8" version was bundled into the then-new Windows XP operating system in October 2001. This edition was compatible with the enhanced audio and video codecs built into Windows Media Audio and Video 8.

Everything changed in January 2003 with the official release of Windows Media Player 9. The main improvements were for the ability of the user to customize his or her experiences. Here was streaming media software with mini-player mode, queue-it-up, cross-fading, auto-volume leveling, variable speed playback, auto playlists and ratings. It also added support for new Windows Media Audio 9 lossless, variable bit-rate (VBR) encoding, sound distortion reduction HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) playback technology and "video smoothing" technology for content encoded at comparatively low bit rates. A big help for consumers with comparatively slow, dial-up connections, the video smoothing technology built into Windows Media Player 9 smoothes out streams by inserting interpolated (estimated range of display characteristics) frames into content.

Apple Computer followed a somewhat different path to the streaming media competitive marketplace. The company first rolled out QuickTime in 1992 as software that would primarily play rich media files the user had already downloaded to their computer. Apple maintained that the main advantage of this method over streaming was that since the file being played was being generated from the user's computers, playback was not compromised by the vagaries of inconsistent Internet connections at low speeds.

As more customers obtained fast broadband connections, and as streaming media software showed it was here to stay, Apple upgraded QuickTime with streaming media playback capability. The first version of QuickTime with the capacity to play streaming files directly from the Internet was QuickTime 4.0, released in September 1999.

Apple has issued two substantial upgrades since then. The latest version, QuickTime 6.4, was released in September, 2003. It includes support for mobile rich media content as well as MPEG-4 technology, an enhanced digital compression technique for encoding rich multimedia content.