by November 29, 2000 0 comments

The past year has seen a great technological boom in the
multimedia market. A lot has been happening in the fields of audio and video
formats, authoring and development tools, multimedia content development and
delivery, etc. A big driver behind this has been the Internet. With growing
Internet penetration among the masses, content delivery over the Web has grown
manifold.

For the ears

MP3s became a rage the moment the technology hit the market.
Throughout the year we saw MP3s becoming popular among music buffs around the
world. Because of their good sound quality, and small file sizes, MP3s were
clear winners over other forms of music storage, mainly audio CDs. They also
caught the fancy of people like music jockeys because they can fit in over nine
hours of tracks on a single CD. As a result, online DJs have also become
popular! People ranging from audio enthusiasts, small time
running-out-of-the-shack guys to big names like Napster, all joined the MP3
bandwagon. It started a whole new industry, that of MP3 encoding, distribution,
and also hardware MP3 players.

Companies like Creative, Philips, Samsung, D-Link and many
others brought out their own hardware MP3 players, which are compact, sleek,
stylish and can store a good amount of quality music. Creative came out with a
whole new range of products for the MP3 segment ranging from small Nomad MP3
players to the Nomad Jukebox. The accessories for these products include
applications like Lava, which let you compose your own music videos! These
gadgets have really caught the fancy of even an average teenager.

Along came controversies and copyright issues with music
companies and bands filing lawsuits for their rights. Napster was one big name
that came in the limelight, and court rulings were passed to shutdown their
servers. But the task is not easy because music sharing methods like the one
used in Napster is not based on one single content server but distributed among
users.

Piracy and illegal distribution of MP3 music still continues
and is leading to development in music formats that incorporate copyrights. This
process is quite similar to digital signing of documents. The music file is
digitally signed or watermarked and the signature holds the information of
ownership for the file. Microsoft has started propounding the WMA format from
its camp and claims of equally good sound quality and even smaller file sizes.
Companies like Sony, working with the ATTRAC3 format, and AT&T,
experimenting with A2B format, are also working in the same direction. The issue
is at the moment an open court, as it’s not being widely accepted as a
universal format for secure music distribution. Till then, MP3 lives on.

And the eyes

In the Indian market, DVDs were supposed to revolutionize the
market for the distribution of movies and other video content as industry
analysts projected. Though this was true to some extent in the markets abroad,
in India this didn’t happen, primarily because of the high costs of both the
DVD media and running costs of the encoding process and the hardware required
for playback. There was also a lack of a single set of standards, which confused
the marketplace. While Sony and Philips support DVD+RW standard, Hitachi,
Panasonic and Toshiba support the DVD-RAM. Both standards have their own pros
and cons, and differ in parameters like the read/write method, number of rewrite
cycles, etc. Eventually, the hardware may evolve such that it’s compatible
with both the standards. Till then VCDs rule the roost.

Another significant development in video formats was DivX.
This is a video compression method, which has also seen a large-scale open
source development. Unfortunately it’s also becoming widespread for illegal
distribution of full movies over the Internet. The beauty of the format is the
amount of experimentation you can do with it in terms of compression of both
audio and video data.

MPEG-4 is another big term that is making the rounds on the
Internet. It’s being projected as the next big thing to happen to video as MP3
happened to audio. A lot of free encoders and other experimental software are
available on the Internet for those who want a feel of this supposed revolution.
With small file sizes and perceptibly good quality, this format might become a
rage in the near future.

Online entertainment

There was not much advancement as far as technology goes, but
widespread implementation was very evident in this area of multimedia. The
beginning of the year saw a steady rise in the number of ISPs in India, and a
subsequent rise in the number of dial-up connections. Now we are talking of
broadband access and cable modems to provide even more bandwidths.

The market saw more concentrated attempts to provide online
entertainment. Distribution and playback of real time and on-demand audio-video
content via Internet became a big market space with numerous portals coming up
just to provide, say Webcast content. There was a significant rise in the number
of Flash-enabled Websites and Websites providing streaming media content.
Macromedia Flash came up in a big way purely because of the catchy effects it
can produce combined with the ease of development. Flash-enabled sites seem to
have a life of their own with sounds too, and this boosts the traffic a site can
boast of.

Ventures like IndiaFM came up in the field of streaming,
which can provide 24-hours of non-stop music catering to people all over the
nation. Many of the recently launched Indian portals have incorporated sections
dedicated to streaming audio and video trailers of latest movies.

For the content, basically two formats are the contenders–the
Microsoft Streaming Media format and the RealNetworks RealMedia. But a quick
look reveals that RealMedia is a preferred choice, mainly because of a unified
encoding method and ease of distribution. Microsoft streaming formats have, on
the other hand, seen application in Webcasts which are a thing to look out for
in the near future with broadband accesses. Both formats are, however, being
used for scheduled, on demand and always live programming such as TV shows,
radio stations, breaking news, concerts and other broadband content.

RealNetworks as a company has been steadily coming out with
player and encoder software upgrades, with the Real Player 8 being the most
recent addition. Microsoft launched the Media Player 7 as a latest addition to
its bandwagon and also shipped it as a component with its Windows ME OS. But
feedback from multimedia buffs around the world as seen from newsgroups and
numerous discussion groups shows that people still prefer the older version of
the Media Player for its lightness. There are also numerous other stream-boxes
available but they have not been so popular.

Streaming MP3s have also been an option since the very
beginning and we had names like MP3.com in the arena. But this technology has
not gained preference in the past year and we didn’t see any of the newer
ventures investing into it.

What else?

Newer dimensions in multimedia will allow you to smell and
feel the content. So if you see a green pasture, you’ll be able to smell the
ground and feel the cool breeze blowing from the east. Imagine what it will be
like? But this dream seems to be distant at the moment.

Presently, look out for emerging technologies. Consumer
electronic majors producing home-theatre systems and the likes are either trying
to keep pace with the pulse of the hour or still waiting because this market is
too dynamic. Home-theatres are slowly being integrated with the PC to provide
you with an entertainment powerhouse. So you have Dolby-surround four-point
speakers linked to your high-end sound card and a nice big monitor. That is all
you’ll ever need for a round the clock entertainment and loads of sound and
sights pouring into your homes.

Ashish Sharma

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