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Multimedia and the 3.0 Web browsers; Netscape's, Microsoft's new browsers pack built-in multimedia capability.

There are many browsers to surf the Web, but only two--Netscape's Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer--would currently be considered heavyweight contenders. Until this past August, Netscape Navigator had no close competition at all. According to surveys, il ruled the waves, with almost 90 percent of Web surfers using it. But all this may change dramatically now that Microsoft has started to take the Internet really seriously and to challenge Netscape.

Both companies released the latest versions of their browsers at the end of August, with Microsoft heating Netscape by a week. I waited to write this piece until the final versions became available, as the beta versions were undergoing changes until the very last minute. It is a real fight now, not unlike the war between AT&T and MCI, with many questionable claims, counterclaims, and accusations from both corners of the ring.

In this space, I'm only going to look at the multimedia aspects of Netscape Navigator S.0 and Internet Explorer 3.0, but there are certainty other aspects that are worth your attention in deciding which one you prefer. While you may have the luxury of switching between the two or even running them parallel as I like to do, in a corporate environment your IS department will likely want to standardize on one or the other.

Although both browsers have significant improvements and novel features. those of Internet Explorer 3.0 are more significant, especially from a multimedia perspective. Before looking at the built-in multimedia capabilities of both browsers, it is prudent to have a quick look at recent solutions to multimedia playback in Web browsing as well as at solutions to analogous situations in other computer applications, since they often serve to forecast the future.

Helpers, Plug-ins, ActiveX Controls

Netscape deserves credit for introducing multimedia features in the browser world well over a year ago At first. multimedia meant using stand-alone programs to display GIF images or to play back MIDI files after you finished browsing. It was almost revolutionary when Netscape allowed online viewing of GIF images without external applications. Nevertheless, you still needed such programs--called helper applications--for other types of images (such as fractal images) as well as for animation (FLI and FLC tiles), standard audio clips (WAV, AU, AIFF, and MID tiles). and video clips (AVI, MOV, and MPG flee).

With the release of Netscape Navigator 2. it became possible to launch such helper applications from within the Netscape browser (without spawning another separate window for the application) once the applications were down loaded, installed, and "formally introduced" to Netscape. These applications got "plugged in" through this introduction process and were hence called plug-ins. They made navigating the Web much smoother, although the incumbent plug-ins could often be challenged and overthrown by new plug-ins acting like Trojan horses. Once new ones were plugged in, they could take over some multimedia playback functions from your old favorites, not necessarily for the better. And it could be difficult, especially for a novice, to deal with this situation.

The most convenient solution for users is to have some of the image viewer and music playback functions integrated into a browser as it ships. However, few applications achieved this status. While Netscape has increased the multimedia functions built directly into its browser, Microsoft has done better, offering more multimedia functionality straight from Internet Explorer and a more sophisticated yet simpler solution for accommodating additional programs known as ActiveX controls. These programs are similar to helper applications and plug-ins, but they are "smoother operators" in providing features that the browser itself is not capable of.

Deja Vu All Over Again

If you have been using computers for quite a time, this may seem like deja vu. For example, in the mid-1980s Lotus was incapable of producing a decent chart or of applying shading or boldfacing. You needed to use one or more additional utilities such as Impress or Allways for these functions. Some of these later became add-in programs that worked within Lotus. As another example, until the late '80s you couldn't preview the printed format of a page from Microsoft Word directly, let alone convert a WordPerfect file on the fly as it was being read. And in the world of MS-DOS, you needed a separate utility to delete subdirectories with one command, as DOS itself did not offer this simple function. These have since become standard functions.

Even today we need such utilities. You still need an add-on to store more than one image in the Windows clipboard. QuickView, to cite another example, is a terrific add-in for File Manager that enables you to display files in about 200 formats (such as Quattro Pro for a WQ1 format file) without invoking the applications that created them. And the fascinating Power Tools program series of plug-ins made the German system designer Kai's name a household word among users of Adobe Photoshop. These work only within the designated programs.

Netscape Navigator 3.0

Netscape has significantly enhanced the built-in multimedia functions in the latest version of its browser. While the company's claim that Netscape Navigator now plays "all major sound formats" is a gross exaggeration, it does automatically play back most standard sound formats, including AIFF, AU, MID, and WAV. But it can't play back the popular and efficient standard MPEG sound files. Nor does it include the player for the most popular proprietary format, RealAudio. Plug-ins can be downloaded for both, however. The built-in LiveAudio component of Netscape 3.0 has a well-designed standard control panel with play, pause, stop, and volume controls. The icing on the cake is that you may play background music while surfing, choosing among five or six music genres.

As for movies, Netscape's built-in LiveVideo component plays back files in the standard Windows AVI format. It also has built-in playback capability (but not as part of LiveVideo) for Apple's QuickTime MOV format. Once again, however, it does not have built-in facilities for the most-compact and highest-quality standard video format, MPEG. Also, while there are options for play, pause, stop, rewind, fast forward, and frame-by-frame functions, the control panel does not pop up automatically, so many users may miss it.

Netscape's Live3D component (which is not part of the standard version) offers viewing capabilities for three-dimensional Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) objects with embedded video and sound. While the QuickTime viewer is part of this latest release of the browser, the QuickTime VR component is not. It is also worth noting that even though the Netscape browser is available for about 15 platforms, Live3D runs only under the three Windows versions (3.1, 95, and NT).

CoolTalk is not part of the standard version of Netscape 3.0, but it is noteworthy. CoolTalk provides full duplex operations and shared whiteboarding. This enables two users to view the same image or information on their separate screens, annotate it, highlight elements, and talk to each other during this process. It seems to be an impressive capability (I have not tested it yet), but again Netscape's claim that "CoolTalk turns any sound card and speaker-equipped computer into a realtime phone" must have been made by a salesman who forgot to mention that you also need a microphone. Not a big deal in terms of price, but essential for a dialog.

Internet Explorer 3.0

Considering that Microsoft has come to the Internet ball quite late, it has made a stunning appearance with the latest version of its Internet Explorer browser, especially in terms of multimedia capabilities. The key to the success of Internet Explorer 3.0--beyond the overall attractive and sophisticated design of the interface--is the ActiveMovie component. It seamlessly integrates automatic playback of the same multimedia formats that Netscape 3.0 does . . . and then some.

Internet Explorer can be downloaded in three versions (Minimum Install is just the browser, Typical Install includes Internet Mail and News features, and Full Install includes NetMeeting, HTML Layout Control, and ActiveMovie). The ActiveMovie component is almost 3 MB but it is worth every bit.

ActiveMovie singlehandedly takes care of a]l the standard audio and video formats that Netscape does, plus the increasingly important MPEG formats in several of their flavors (MPA, MPE, MPG, and MPV). The compactness of the MPEG formats (so important even for those who use direct T-1 lines instead of a modem-based dial-up connection) is clearly illustrated by the MOV, AVI, and MPG versions of a short Jay Leno clip that I watched, which required 800 K, 500 K, and 120 K, respectively. While the MPG version was less crisp than the other two, it represents a size-saving compromise that most Web users will be happy with. Another plus is that the RealAudio Player comes with the Minimum Install, unlike in Netscape Navigator 3.0.

One down side of Microsoft's latest browser is that it is currently available only for Windows 95 and Windows NT platforms, which still represent a minority of users (though probably not for too much longer). As with Internet Explorer 2.0, versions of Internet Explorer 3.0 for the Windows 3.1 and MacOS platforms will likely be available within a few months of its initial release.

You should also note that Netscape Navigator 3.0 is far leaner than Internet Explorer 3.0 (if you compare the full suite versions of both). But this only matters once, when you download the browsers. When it comes to the more important issue of memory footprint, the two browsers are more comparable.

Again on the up side, an advantage of Internet Explorer is that it is absolutely free for anyone. Netscape makes Netscape Navigator 3.0 free only for the educational community, requiring others to pay $49 for the release version.

Beyond Inherent Capabilities

Both browsers have made impressive strides in facilitating the use of multimedia Web sites by delivering their products with built-in multimedia capabilities. While Microsoft offers more than Netscape, both still require external help to cover the wide range of multimedia formats on the Web. Microsoft's claim that "ActiveMovie delivers playback of all popular Web-based audio and video formats" is also an exaggeration. There are many other file formats that neither Netscape nor Microsoft support natively. Both need help from third-party developers. Both provide a smart way to accommodate these add-ins. Microsoft accommodates them through ActiveX controls, while Netscape's solution is the Plug-In Manager. Microsoft's solution is easier for the end user, but there are more plug-ins than ActiveX controls. (For the record, Microsoft claims to have more than 1,000 ActiveX controls as opposed to 83 plug-ins, but I think the way these are counted is misleading.)

Hopefully, the distinction between these two will diminish as the companies pledge to support each other's preferred solution. What seems to be sure is that no matter which browser you choose, or even if you use both, there will be a need for add-on programs that enhance the congenital multimedia capabilities of both browsers. Next month I'll report about the best of those.

Peter Jacso is associate professor of library and information studies at the University of Hawaii. He writes for this and other professional magazines, speaks at professional conferences, and regularly offers his online/CD-ROM workshop series. His e-mail address is jacso@
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Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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