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Start-up attempts to bridge choppy streaming waters

A multimedia pioneer launches a company that aims to bridge incompatible streaming media applications, including those developed by RealNetworks, Microsoft and Apple Computer.

    Online multimedia pioneer Peter Hoddie has launched a company that aims to bridge incompatible streaming media applications, including those developed by rivals RealNetworks, Microsoft and Apple Computer.

    One of the founding members of Apple's QuickTime engineering team, Hoddie is now chief executive of Generic Media. On Monday, the company unveiled new software that it says will allow online video and audio clips to run across a variety of networks and devices without having to select media formats.

    "The goal here is not to get into the media player war," Hoddie said. "This enables content producers the widest possible solutions. With multiple media players, ongoing format enhancements, and a growing array of new devices, the current streaming media landscape is chaotic and wrought with uncertainties."

    Streaming technology allows Net users to access audio and video without having to download large files onto their hard drives. Streaming allows live Internet broadcasts and provides an added layer of security for content companies that don't want consumers to get their hands on complete copies of copyrighted material.

    In addition, streaming is theoretically more efficient than downloading files, although changing network conditions can cause transmissions to cut out, a common problem known as "buffering."

    Competition remains stiff between the three major media players from RealNetworks, Microsoft and Apple, hobbling efforts to develop an industry standard that would make it easy to view online video on one type of player. Though Apple has joined the Internet Streaming Media Alliance, those efforts are futile without the participation of the two other giants.

    RealNetworks and Microsoft are engaged in a bitter battle for market share that some observers believe parallels the browser wars. In a recent report, Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget downgraded RealNetworks' stock, citing the growing popularity of Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

    "We continue to believe there is a significant risk that Microsoft will do to RealNetworks what it did to Netscape--take over the market by bundling functionality in larger products and giving it away for free," Blodget wrote in a research note at the time.

    The complexity and costs of streaming content online have hampered growth in the industry, which hopes to create an alternative, Internet-based entertainment application to compete with--and possibly replace--traditional broadcast media, such as radio and television. This week, Intel dropped a 10-month-old foray into the streaming media services business, citing intense competition for a dwindling number of customers.

    Streaming media companies have been especially hard hit in the current dot-com slowdown. RealNetworks recently revised its earnings expectations downward, and some smaller companies, such as Pseudo Programs, have shut down.

    Analysts agree that companies must simplify the streaming media experience. But whether Generic Media's new technology is the solution remains to be seen.

    "These things take time," said research analyst Paul Palumbo of Digital Broadcast and Programming in Seaside, Calif. "Whether Generic Media's software is successful depends on how much it will improve the experience and if it makes content more available and reduces cost."

    Hoddie believes it does. Publishing digital content once brings in substantial savings for companies such as CNN, which must create, say, eight different lots of video that will run on RealPlayer, Windows Media Player and QuickTime as well as on all the different versions of those products.

    Streaming Media, a San Jose, Calif.-based industry service, estimates that it costs about $7 a minute in each format per bit rate to put video on the Web. If a company is forced to publish eight different clips, the cost could run as high as $50 a minute, Hoddie said.

    Generic Media customers and partners include Sony, online music-storage service Myplay.com and software maker Virage.