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At Large: Islands in the stream

At Large: Islands in the stream

Taking a bold look at the future, Matthew JC. Powell mrphle wumpy grum . . .

I am a technology buff. I make no apologies for that. If I find a new, cool technology I tend to throw myself at it unashamedly. I do often make apologies on behalf of tech- nology that isn't quite as polished as it ought to be. Especially when, as regularly happens in my line of work, I get to see it before it's even finished. My computer at home has so much beta, alpha and pre-alpha software on it that I'm occasionally mistaken for an ancient Greek.

(Just by the way, can anyone tell me why it only ever goes up to beta? Why don't you hear about gamma or delta software? Epsilon is a perfectly good Greek letter and Pi is fundamental to our understanding of circles, yet neither seems to be in the programmer's vocabulary. No matter how many revisions beyond beta are required, code guys would rather go up to "beta 3275" than resort to calling their software gamma. This alpha, beta, final thing is reminiscent of parents telling their kids to clean up their mess on the count of three: "one, two, two-and-a-half, two-and three-quarters . . ." Anyway, I'm just wondering.)As I was saying, sometimes when friends are over I'll be showing off some new cool thing or other that I've installed, and it will either have no discernible benefit that my friends can see, or it'll just crash the machine in a heap. More than once I've found myself defending such demos with excuses like "OK, it's not finished yet, but did you see how many polygons it was displaying just before the smoke came out?" or "hopefully the final version won't need this dongle, because the pdf doesn't say what these two wires are supposed to do - hang on while I check out that smell . . ."

One technology for which I make no apologies is streaming media on the Internet. This stuff is cool, folks, no two ways about it.

Right now, I can load up any one of a number of streaming media players and watch TV from all over the world (well, the US anyway). I have more control than ever before over what sort of content I would like to watch, even without having to pay cable TV connection and subscription fees. I don't even have the pressure of feeling obliged to buy products that are advertised, since most of the things in the ads aren't available here.

The best part is that everyone on streaming media - newsreaders, sportscasters, talk-show hosts, whatever - sounds just like James Reyne. It's great. Normally you have to wait a fair while - years sometimes - between releases from the great mumbler. Now you can load up RealPlayer, QuickTime 4 or any number of others and get a fix anytime. "Today in Kosovo, president burble burble PHWEEEEET . . . something . . . something . . . fall of Rome . . ." all accompanied by an impressionistic swirl of images and colours of which Dali himself would be afraid.

Streaming audio is no better, of course. I believed briefly that audio would require less bandwidth, resulting in a better-quality result. I believe foolish things like that sometimes, just to keep myself humble. In fact, streaming audio mostly comes out in disjointed pulses from which no pattern that could be decoded as "music" can be easily found. Everything from Liszt to Lennon to Lungslug sounds like an underwater cardiac monitor.

My point is, though, that this is in itself a fantastic leap forward in the way people receive information. What are you going to gain more from: a newscast that drones on pleasantly in the background while you think of brown chickens, or a newscast that requires you to apply your powers of reasoning to work out what in the world it's about? Streaming audio is the very antithesis of "easy listening" - it's "difficult listening", and the satisfaction of working out what song you're listening to is unparalleled. I haven't yet managed to find a Web site that actually streams James Reyne audio clips, but I dare to dream.

Mark my words, this is the future of interactive media, and all Australian businesses need to hop on-board or be left behind. Who cares if it's irrelevant to what your business actually does - animated logos were irrelevant four years ago, and now how many of you have one?

If you can't find a Web site featuring streaming audio and video content created by me by the end of this year, be very surprised. With any luck at all, it won't look or sound anything like me.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au


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