Digitalia: ratings and ravings

When it comes to new media, very little remains stationary. This month, we revisit three of the genre's heaviest hitters-CDs, streaming media and Flash-to see who is swinging the biggest stick....
September 1, 1999

When it comes to new media, very little remains stationary. This month, we revisit three of the genre’s heaviest hitters-CDs, streaming media and Flash-to see who is swinging the biggest stick.

Without a doubt, there is no shortage of new media applications in the marketplace-in one corner you have ‘hard’ products like CD-ROMs and DVDs, and in the other, ‘soft’ media like streaming audio (Internet radio and MP3 players), as well as Shockwave and Flash technology. But with all of the competition, how do they stack up?

Dishing on discs

Years before audio, video and animation went on-line, CD-ROMs delivered all of the content anyone could ever want-everything from games to encyclopedias. Enhanced CDs , their younger, better-looking digital cousins, combined prerecorded music with high-quality visuals, but never took off, due to a lack of music industry support. DVDs, the latest iteration, hold about 25 times more than a typical CD-enough for an entire feature-length movie, alternate endings, multiple camera angles and several soundtracks.

Kids say they love DVDs because they’re easy to use, the content is instantly available and the visuals are always very rich. But where they lose is not with kids, it’s with the parents who have to buy them! They’re expensive (US$30 to US$40), DVD drives are common only on the newest computers, home DVD players are hardly as ubiquitous as VCRs, and finally, let’s not forget the threat of obsolescence. Another kid complaint about both CDs and DVDs concerns their durability. The technology is still susceptible to the LP ruiner of old-the scratch factor.

Streaming into the next millennium

While the latest media developments tend to be Internet-based, their long, large downloads remain a nuisance. Streaming eliminates these bothersome interludes by transferring smaller chunks of data, enabling content to play almost immediately, even through the slowest Internet connections.

The RealAudio player was the first to allow live digital audio broadcasts, giving birth to Internet radio. RealVideo, its visual broadcasting sibling, is used extensively on Web sites like MTV, MuchMusic and PBS. RealPlayers have a huge advantage in that anyone with a modem can get the software, allowing them to tune in to stacks of content from around the world. According to kids, its major drawbacks show up in poor sound quality, choppy reception and slurred content, all of which is played on a teeny, tiny screen.

Apple is hoping to remedy these problems with its QuickTime player, which now has streaming capabilities well beyond its competitors. Over 20 million of the players have been downloaded since last spring, thanks largely to Lucasfilm’s exclusive use of the technology to show its Star Wars movie trailer.

Flash and Shockwave animate the Net

The most impressive of the new media technologies is Macromedia’s Web animation tool Flash, which allows for full-screen animations, magazine-style layouts, and interfaces that respond to a user’s every action. The software has been used to create everything from on-line comic books to interactive radio stations. The most recent version, Flash 4, can also stream MP3 audio and create interactive videos. Furthermore, it can now generate the kind of forms used in e-commerce and various types of information gathering.

Similar to Flash, but somewhat more complex, is Macromedia’s Shockwave technology. Shockwave movies work more like a CD-ROM than a Web page, yet have the potential to create everything from complex games to database-connected educational programs. As with streaming content, its biggest hurdles are (broadcast) bandwidth and the time it takes to download or even begin streaming. Few users complain when problems like this arise, they simply choose to abandon the site in question.

Kids rate Web sites based on the Flash or Shockwave quality of games and activities they offer, with and scoring number one and two respectively.

What makes each format outstanding (or not) is the amount of ‘friction’ they present to users. For example, DVDs are great for kids, but depend on parents expending time, effort and money to supply them. In this case, they pass the test because they are low friction for kids (albeit high friction for mum and dad). Streaming media, once resident on your computer, allows kids to play as much streamed music and videos as their little hearts desire, but Internet congestion and choppy flow can be a pain in the butt (high friction) for kids. Flash combines high-level interaction and enhancement of visuals with a minimum headache level to take top honors. And until other media can do the same, Flash is the king.

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