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Listen to Some RealAudio, or The Birth of InteRadio

I’m increasingly unimpressed by the so-called Internet breakthroughs that continually appear. Most trumpet their presence then fade away because they need too much bandwidth, are badly done, or don’t solve any existing problems. But, as I write this in an older version of Nisus (a noted CPU hog), I have Anarchie downloading and uploading at the same time, Eudora sending some mail, and most notably, Progressive Networks’ new RealAudio program playing some John Lee Hooker in real time over the Internet. If I was wearing socks, they would have been knocked off some time ago. Although I do have a 56K direct Internet connection, I’m in the middle of testing providers for the third edition of Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh (due out in late June), so I’m currently connected via a 14,400 bps PPP connection to Northwest Nexus. In other words, I’m jamming real-time audio through a standard modem.

The Macintosh version of the RealAudio player is now in public beta, so check out the Web page below (which also has links to the known sites serving RealAudio files) to sign up for the beta program (which requires filling out a detailed online form via a Web browser). Nothing I’ve seen on the RealAudio Web site indicates whether or not the RealAudio Player will eventually be commercial software, although I wouldn’t be surprised either way.

Anyway, back to the testing. Let’s be fair about this. Anarchie’s having trouble getting much over 400 bytes per second, and Eudora’s transfers were decidedly sluggish. But, the blues playing from Adam Curry’s Metaverse site didn’t cut out on me the entire time. And especially with Nisus 3.4 in the foreground, that’s impressive.

So what is RealAudio? It’s a new way of delivering audio data over the Internet. You’ve been able to download sounds (often in the Sun .au format) of such highlights as President Clinton’s cat meowing, and the Internet Underground Music Archive has done some interesting stuff. But it’s a drag waiting around for a large audio file (and they’re all large) to download just so you can play it. What RealAudio brings to the mix is real time playback. So although it’s transferring heavily-compressed audio data over your MacTCP-based Internet connection, it plays what it transfers right away, rather than downloading an entire file and playing it later.

RealAudio operates primarily as a helper application for Web browsers – you click on a link to a RealAudio file, and the Web browser passes it off to the RealAudio Player application. Also involved (I’m not quite sure what its purpose is yet) is a faceless background application called RealAudio Daemon that’s installed in your Extensions folder. My suspicion is that the RealAudio Daemon is responsible for maintaining the performance even when the RealAudio Player is in the background.

This morning I listened to about 20 minutes of Garrison Keillor’s hilarious address to the National Press Club (they’ve got a number of other speeches you can hear), and although it was coming through in real time, I could still control my location in the segment with a graphical slider that indicated how far along I was. It tells you the exact timestamp of your location too, so it’s easy to stop the program and start it up in the same spot later. You can pause and restart the audio stream, and if you click on additional links on one of these Web pages, RealAudio creates a playlist of what’s coming up. You can remove and re-order items in the playlist, and when the current file stops playing, RealAudio starts the next one.

One of the reasons I’m tremendously excited about the potential of RealAudio on the Internet is that it could easily enable you to preview a low-quality (RealAudio has nothing on a CD player) version of an artist’s work. If you decided you liked the music, it’s trivial even now to order the CD over the Web from places like CDnow. And if the artist in question hasn’t yet hit the big time, the Internet Underground Music Archive could perform a similar service.

In addition, unlike television, radio is for the most part extremely local and seldom has program listings, making it difficult to know which radio shows are on when. There are some radio shows that I’d love to hear, but which I can never remember to listen to or tape at the right time.

I’m unsure what effect this real-time audio will have on the Internet itself. It’s probably not a big deal for Metaverse to send me 43 minutes of American Blues, but what if 100 other people also want to listen at the same time? Connection speed shouldn’t make much difference, since it will take everyone 43 minutes to listen to American Blues, so both the server and the Internet have to support that data stream for the entire time.

The bad news for Mac users is that the (very expensive) RealAudio server runs only on Unix and Windows NT, and the RealAudio Studio program that you use to convert sound files into RealAudio format runs only under Windows. Still, the RealAudio player works fine on the Mac, and that’s the first step. It might remain free to support sales of the RealAudio Studio and Server, or it might cost $20 or $30 – no telling yet. Still, give RealAudio a try – it’s very cool.

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