The hype from Streaming Media West 2000 suggests that you can expect to see "Apocalypse Now" on your PC, with breathtaking DVD-quality picture and sound, any day now. The real picture is blurrier, however--and likely to remain so for years to come.
Bandwidth is not the only issue slowing the arrival of high-quality Internet video. Traditional network architecture is very poorly adapted to the transmission of streaming media, which requires that all elements of the transmission be sent and received at exactly the same rate--unlike ordinary data, which is transmitted in packets. Network congestion, and arcane technical problems such as packet collision and packet loss, cause serious degradation in picture and sound quality long before the data stream reaches the desktop.
Many providers of network infrastructure products, including Cisco Systems and Akamai, are working to make the network environment more hospitable to video streams. Another promising development is RealSystem iQ, which aims to reduce network congestion by decentralizing the data stream. Until these solutions are implemented, however, there is little software providers like Microsoft and RealNetworks can do to speed the arrival of high-quality video streaming.
Which video player will eventually come to dominate the market? At this point, because of the extraneous factors discussed above, it is impossible to say. The competition between Windows Media Player and RealPlayer is intense, and will likely remain so, with the two players essentially matching each other feature for feature. The competition between the two is strikingly reminiscent of the "browser wars" between Microsoft and Netscape Communications--and, like that struggle, it is likely not to be resolved for a long time.
One thing is certain, however: Crystal-clear video will not be coming to the Web anytime soon.
(For related commentary on streaming video over the Internet, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)
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