A now outdated Active Streaming and RealMedia A/V tool
June 14, 2002
What do you do when your chosen technology doesn't exactly match up to the competition's? Well, if you're Microsoft you either buy the competition outright or you buy the rights to their technology. Microsoft NetShow is a perfect example of the philosophy that if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. Earlier versions of NetShow offered Advanced Streaming Format (ASF), a real-time audio and video streaming technology strong in its own right but unquestionably rivaled by RealNetworks' RealVideo and RealAudio (RA/RV) streaming technology. The success of Microsoft's ASF technology has also been limited by the fact that Microsoft entered the scene well after the RealNetworks technology had gained a majority of the multimedia on-demand market share.
With considerable ground to be made up in terms of both performance and reputation, Microsoft appears to have decided its best move would be to incorporate the RealAudio and RealVideo technology into its NetShow player. By integrating the competition's technology into its own software, Microsoft has once again pulled a trump card that could have dire consequences for the competition (deja vu a la Netscape and Quicken). But RealNetworks also has an ace up its sleeve, so before Microsoft is given the nod over RealPlayer, it helps to consider NetShow's strengths as well as its weaknesses.
In terms of distinctive competencies, NetShow's most promising is its versatility. With a combination of both ASF and RA/RV multimedia formats under its belt, NetShow delivers compatibility with more existing real-time audio and video content than any other client currently available. NetShow benefits from an edge in cross-platform compatibility as well, with versions currently available for Windows 95, Windows NT, Windows 3.x, Macintosh, and UNIX. NetShow also offers the ability to create and serve both live and on-demand multimedia content using either the excellent standard NetShow 3.0 Server client or the even better premier NetShow Theater Server designed specifically for Windows NT 4.0 Server.
The basic server will enable you to deliver streamed multimedia in both ASF and RA/RV formats and is similar to RealNetworks' Basic Server. The NetShow Theater Server, now in beta release, provides a more powerful platform for delivering MPEG-quality full-motion, full-screen video across high-bandwidth networks and dedicated video LANs.
NetShow also excels at flexibility through its excellent support for Web browsers and similar 'net apps. The freeware NetShow client installs a standalone player on your desktop as well as a plug-in for Netscape (and similar browsers) and an ActiveX control for Internet Explorer. Tools for encoding and administering real-time multimedia content and the standard NetShow Server client are also included in this package (NetShow Theater Server can be downloaded separately for free as well). The interface of the client is strikingly similar to that of RealPlayer v4.0 and offers all of the basic controls that one would expect to find in an audio/video player.
The most noticeable shortcoming of NetShow is that while the client does offer integrated RealAudio and RealVideo content, it does so only through use of the older version of the RealPlayer software (v4.0). RealNetworks has since released version 5.0 of RealPlayer which improves on the audio and video quality side of the equation and also adds new support for "RealFlash" animation content synchronized with RealAudio. Another shortcoming of NetShow is that it currently requires two different players -- one for playing files in the ASF format and another for those in the RA/RV format. While the dual player aspect of NetShow is expected to be improved upon with the next major release of the client, the fact that two players are currently required is still a surprising deficiency from a company like Microsoft.
The bottom line is that although Microsoft NetShow has come a long way since its initial debut, it still trails RealPlayer by a sizable margin. The fact that NetShow (v2.0) is built into Microsoft Internet Explorer will undoubtedly help NetShow in its uphill battle against RealPlayer. But as long as RealNetworks can continue to stay one step ahead of Microsoft as it has done with with the latest release of RealPlayer, NetShow will have a difficult time trying to overcome the current king of multimedia streaming.
Pros: Impressive real-time audio/video, freeware, Active Streaming and RealMedia content