Magazine article Information Today

Multimedia and the 3.0 Web Browsers

Magazine article Information Today

Multimedia and the 3.0 Web Browsers

Article excerpt

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, it 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 beating 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 3.0 and Internet Explorer 3.0, but there are certainly 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 (FI I and FLC files), standard audio clips (WAV, AU, AIFF, and MID files), and video clips (AVI, MOV, and MPG files).

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 downloaded, 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 plugins 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 plugins, 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. …

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