MBONE: Multicasting Tomorrow's Internet
As I write this section, my computer is blaring a song by Sunfish, a Canadian band that I've never heard of before. I downloaded the tune from Virtual Radio (http://www.microserve.net/vradio), an online warehouse of, well, bands that I've never heard of. The song, "Difference, is online in it's entirety. It's about 2MB, and it took several minutes to download, but it was definitely worth the wait. It has a beat; you can dance to it.
Yes indeed, there's music on the Net. Another Web site offers news and commentary from National Public Radio's "Morning Edition show. Yet another site houses an impressive collection of music from California garage bands.
Sound on the Internet is in its infancy. Standards are still being hashed out, and no "killer apps are available for audio (yet). But as the Internet takes its slow course toward being the source for 500 channels of multimedia superhighway mayhem, the ability to transmit sound is becoming essential. Today's experiments with audio on the Net are a great first step. They provide interesting content, and they work on almost any computer that can play audio. However, the technology still has hurdles to overcome. Most notably, the sound quality of most of these services is low, scratchy, and low fidelity. Despite the emerging press releases and corporate propaganda, don't believe that the current uses of sound on the Net are anything more than experiments.
Still, it's fun to be on the cutting edge, listening to songs from bands that I didn't know existed.
Today's audio on the Internet loosely falls into two categories:
For the Internet-only broadcasters, the challenge lies in getting people to tune in beyond the first try. They depend completely on listeners' bookmarking their sites and returning to them, and thus they have a much harder task than the traditional broadcasters. On the other hand, Internet-only radio is ultracool, and Internet-savvy bands are beginning to make their music available on the Net. Similarly, Internet-savvy listeners are tuning in, and as access becomes faster, broadcasting on the Internet could very well change the way that people experience radio.
Carl Malamud is the founder of ITR. "The idea for ITR came from my frustration with the trade press. I knew they weren't providing the information I wanted, and [I] was looking for an alternative. He noted that the trade press focuses on marketing and reviews, leaving a gap for a general-interest, technically-oriented publication for Internet users. "I couldn't start a magazine, because it takes money to print and distribute a magazine, he said. Malamud turned to the Internet as a general-purpose distribution method.
Some Net users have criticized the talk radio concept as a grandiose waste of network bandwidth, given the fact that the same information in text format could fit into only a few kilobytes. "The reason that you get audio information from a $3,000 (or $30,000) computer, Malamud said, "is because ultimately this gives you a very new medium. We're not trying to replace radio, just as the trucks didn't replace the railroads and the telephone didn't replace the telegraph. There are things we can do that you can't do on a radio, like go interactive or add WAIS databases to support a program, or make an audio-on-demand server.
Internet Talk Radio began in 1993, and although it was innovative, it seems to have fallen by the wayside. It has been surpassed by newer technologies (some of which we examine later in this chapter), and Malamud has moved on to newer avenues of Internet multimedia.
For more information on Internet Talk radio, visit http://www.town.hall.org/radio/index.html.
The RealAudio software (see Figure 2-6) runs on Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX. The RealAudio Player is free, and it works from within your Web Browser. When you click on a RealAudio file, the Player launches and begins to play. Progressive Networks is lining up traditional broadcasters, including National Public Radio and ABC, to provide material for RealAudio. Net notables including former MTV veejay Adam Curry. Radio Canada and C-SPAN are using RealAudio to publishing information, and certainly more broadcasters will be announced.
Figure 2-6: RealAudio player.
The RealAudio player presents the listener with a set of stop, play, rewind, and fast-forward buttons. Unlike with "real radio, you can stop the music if you need to step away from your desk, and then pick up where you left off when you return. Even better, you can index radio shows so that you can jump straight to the material that interests you. For example, if you want to hear Radio Canada's news story on why huge chunks of ice are breaking off Antarctica, you can go directly there, skipping over the program's introduction and never hearing the feature about how sex may control the cockroach population.
RealAudio's sound quality isn't wonderful it's something akin to AM radio but speech is certainly understandable. Unfortunately, whether you're connected to the Internet with a 14.4 Kbps modem or a T-1 line, RealAudio sounds the same. It's too bad that higher bandwidth doesn't bring better-quality sound. Then again, better sound is coming, according to Progressive Networks, although almost certainly not in the range of CD-quality audio files. RealAudio's true future appears to be in Internet-based talk radio; and because the Net spans the globe, this alone is reason to be excited.
About five minutes before this book went to press, RealAudio 2.0 was released the new version is said to support better-quality audio for users with faster connections.
Figure 2-7: The RealAudio Web site.
For more information check out RealAudio's Web site: http://www.realaudio.com. (See Figure 2-7.)
Richard Dean, producer of New Media Services at National Public Radio, is excited about the benefits of publishing audio on the Internet. He notes that audio-on-demand has its benefits and drawbacks. "As a listener, it's a great thing. As a radio programmer, maybe it's not such a great thing it disturbs the continuity of the program, he says. "Instead of pushing info at someone that's what radio broadcasters do you allow listeners to come get it from you.
"The biggest problem with radio is that your work is really ephemeral; it hits the ether, and it's gone. No one can hear it again, unless they go buy the tape or the transcript. Because a transcript can't capture the nuances of a news story, and audio-tapes take several days or weeks to arrive, the Internet gives NPR listeners the ability to hear or hear again a story at any time, when it's convenient. "This is where radio broadcasting information providing is going, Dean said.
Figure 2-8: National Public Radio on the Web.
"Here's my problem with the MBONE: Nobody's on it. I think MBONE is a really neat technology, but it doesn't reach who I want to reach; it reaches a bunch of guys with UNIX boxes. With NPR, our goal is to get our content to the end user. That end user is using a dial-up Internet account, he said. RealAudio technology may not be the ultimate in Internet multimedia, but for NPR, it's the best of the technologies available today. "I look at things two ways one is what's now, what can I do today, and then, where is the technology going?
As faster connections become available to the masses, "the MBONE will become something more important than it is right now. But I need to reach listeners now, not in years. He equates today's audio technology to the hand-crank phone: "It may not be the right solution in the long run, but in the short run it is. People don't want to wait. When the technology reaches the next level, you jump to the next level."
For more information about NPR and its Internet broadcasts, point your Web browser to http://www.npr.org/NPR.
Dean says that one of the drawbacks of RealAudio is that the sound quality is the same no matter the speed of your Internet connection. RealAudio sounds like an AM radio whether you're using a 14.4 Kbps or a T-1 connection to your desk, unlike with an emerging protocol, MPEG-2 streaming. In contrast, if you have the hardware and software necessary to handle MPEG-2 streaming and you have plenty of bandwidth to spare, you can hear audio with excellent quality. If you don't have the speed, you can increase the compression dialing up less quality for less bandwidth.
Another issue for National Public Radio has to do not with technology but with copyright law. Currently, NPR needs to edit the musical "bumpers from the Internet broadcasts. Although NPR can legally play songs (or portions of songs) on the air by virtue of paying ASCAP and BMI fees, the music organizations don't yet dole out on-line broadcast rights. It's still unclear how these organizations, who traditionally get paid based on the broadcast range of radio stations, will charge on-line broadcasters. Should a radio station pay royalties based on a potential on-line audience of 30 million? Or can tracking software be developed so that stations can tell exactly who is tuning in to e-broadcasts and when they are tuning into them?
Small college radio stations are experimenting by broadcasting their signals live on the Internet (Figure 2-9). What they're doing may be illegal (at least according to the music clearinghouses ASCAP and BMI), but these stations are pushing the envelope of what can be done and pushing us to contemplate these issues sooner rather than later.
Dean says this reflects a fundamental change in how radio broadcasters must think about their function. His advice to radio stations entering the Internet realm is to "Think of yourself as an information provider, not a radio station. To avoid obsolescence, today's broadcasters need to care about the information they're providing rather than about the medium itself. If the railroads realized that they were in the transportation business, they would be airlines today.
Figure 2-9: The WXYC Web site.
Like everyone else who is hawking wares on the infobahn, NPR needs to make money. NPR uses underwriting sponsorships and sells products (T-shirts, mugs, and the like) online.
Traditionally, NPR gets money from member stations, who in turn solicit funds from their listeners. If NPR and other broadcasters-turned-Internet-multimedia-info-pushers want to stay in the black, the rules of where the money comes from must shift. Today, NPR's on-line audio is free to the listener. "In several years, it might not be free to the end user, Dean said. "But there is no model yet. The price will have to be something incredibly low. The on-demand audience is skyrocketing. The money may not be there, but the audience is, and the money will follow.
The same technology that enables NPR to publish information on the Net enables anyone else J. Random Hacker to create an on-line cyberstation. Could these basement stations create competition for traditional broadcasters who are trying to find a home on the Internet? Certainly. "Competition is a good thing. It only makes what we are going to be doing better, Dean said.
And, as you might expect, VOA broadcasts on the Internet as well. Its Gopher site, gopher.voa.gov, offers news broadcasts in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Hungarian, Slovak, Urdu, and other languages. (See Figure 2-10.)
Voice of America doesn't use audio streaming, so as with Internet Talk Radio, you need to download a large audio file before listening in. According to the service, "These audio files are necessarily large. We have done what we could to keep them manageable, even sacrificing sound quality to some extent in an attempt to minimize their size and, consequently, the time and network bandwidth required to collect them. Downloading the audio for a ten-minute newscast through a modem can take an hour or more.
VOA's on-line audio files are encoded with Sun Microsystems' 8-bit u-law encoding at a rate of 8,000 samples per second. This format, the de facto standard for cross-platform audio files, is relatively compact and offers good sound quality. VOA's on-line news offerings are one of the most reliable and useful venues for Internet multimedia to date.
Figure 2-10: Voice of America.
IUMA has helped pioneer much of the multimedia that's common on the Internet today, from getting college radio stations on the Net, to live audio and video broadcasts. First and foremost, IUMA is an archive of music it provides a forum for bands and record labels to exhibit their wares online. It also sponsors live performances on the MBONE and helps college radio stations put their signals online. Besides the increasingly common feat of putting traditional radio stations on the Internet, IUMA has done the opposite: It helped a radio station program a radio show entirely from IUMA's digital archives.
With IUMA's help, San Jose College radio station KSCU-FM broadcast a full three-hour show live and direct from the IUMA computer archive. On September 14, 1994, KSCU and IUMA played 28 songs during the show. Raji Rai, the DJ for the show, commented that the new system would revolutionize the way DJs format their shows. "Having a resource of over 300 bands, easily searchable in a graphic user interface that is constantly updated from the IUMA site headquarters and complete with full biographical information about the artists is a DJ's dream come true, she said. "It means that we can format an entire show in a fraction of the time it used to take and readily provide listeners with all the band information they could ever want. According to IUMA, "despite some last-minute technical chaos and a quick run to Circuit City, the show came off very well.
Figure 2-11: Internet Underground Music Archive.
IUMA has plans to make its archives, along with the technology of the Internet, available to college radio stations around the country. Implementation will be through a combination of CD-ROMs that contain the IUMA site and special hardware and software.
See IUMA for yourself: http://www.iuma.com.
Figure 2-12: Crusing through IUMA.
But when it comes to making music available on the Internet, the folks at Virtual Radio take a different approach than IUMA's. "IUMA is way ahead trying to pioneer the new technology they are really big on going for high-quality CD sound, said Brent Marcus of Virtual Radio. Of course, high-quality sound means big files to download. "We cut back on that for two reasons, Marcus said. "First is file size, and second is copyability. We don't want to give away free CD-quality music. We want people to sample the music and then buy CDs.
Figure 2-13: Virtual Radio.
Virtual Radio sees its role "as an on-line promoter of bands versus IUMA, which is a music archive, Marcus said. "To outside people, it appears much the same. Our goal is to put the radio station concept online.
Because Virtual Radio can use its World Wide Web server to track exactly how many times each song has been downloaded, it can gauge the bands and music genres that are most popular.
The administrators of Virtual Radio want it to be heard by as many people as possible, so they post music in a variety of audio formats. Since each platform Mac, Windows, and Sun, to name a few uses a different audio format, Virtual Radio's music is posted in a format that's native to each platform. That way, users can download and hear music quickly, without going through a time-consuming (and possibly confusing) audio conversion process. "We want to reach the most people with the least work for them, Marcus said, even at the cost of disk space and staff time to prepare the sound files.
Marcus's vision of the middle future? "In five years, it would make sense to put a whole CD-quality album on the Internet and just sell that. That would be the ultimate music format.
To see Virtual Radio for yourself, point your Web browser to http://www.microserve.net/vradio.
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