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Music Mania

Despite broadband’s limitations, people are signing up in record numbers. It took cable television more than 30 years to reach 15 million customers; broadband Internet services in the United States alone may hit that mark by 2005, about 10 years after the technology was first introduced commercially. Why is broadband catching on so quickly?

In a word: Napster.

“The single most important reason people have signed up for broadband is they want to download music files faster,” says Cavallari. “Next there will be some sort of equivalent to Napster for still pictures, where people can share images or display what they’ve created with their digital cameras.” Indeed, broadband provides a real benefit to anyone trying to download large digital files: a five-minute song, for example, will take less than a minute to download on a broadband line, compared with 10 minutes or more on a dial-up line.

But outside the music- and baby picture-swapping community, some of the most popular applications on the Web can still run afoul of bandwidth shortages. The problem is not so much how many bits of data per second are theoretically able to reach your desk, but rather the maddening variability with which those bits arrive. Broadband users experience wild swings in performance, from near-instantaneous delivery of large files to slower-than-dial-up speeds. Sites that succeed on the broadband Web take these limits into consideration.

Broadband line speeds can be affected by a whole host of factors, from how far the customer’s computer is from the central office providing DSL service (farther equals slower) to, in the case of cable modems, how many other people are trying to download files over the same service. Cable-modem service shares bandwidth among many users; the more traffic there is, the less performance any single user gets. This variability, combined with an Internet protocol that wasn’t designed to make bits arrive on time and in order, often produces video, even at broadband speeds, with that characteristic stop-and-go quality.

Not surprisingly, stop-and-go performance is particularly hard on interactive games. Because packets of information from different computers may travel the Internet over different routes and thus arrive at their destination out of sequence, it’s impossible to predict precisely when a keystroke or mouse click will have the desired effect online. “Say you want to develop an online basketball game,” says Mark Blecher, vice president of marketing and sales for Electronic Arts, a maker of computer games. “One player shoots, the other player attempts to block. The winner will be determined more by what the network does than anything the players do.”

The stop-and-go problem stems from the way that video traveling over the Internet arrives at our machines. Most video available over the Internet is in a streaming format; that is, only a portion of the video file is downloaded into your computer’s electronic memory at any given time. After you view it, it is discarded to make room for the next bit of video. Streaming means you don’t need to use up disk space on your PC to view a video, and that you don’t need to wait long to start watching. But quality takes a hit whenever Internet routers decide to send packets in routes other than a direct line from the server to your computer. One alternative is to download a video file to play later on your desktop processor. That’s what I did to watch Guinevere, and as I found out, this method has plenty of its own problems. Although you avoid network hiccups, you still must contend with the file’s size.

The most effective sites avoid both of these problems with content you can access easily and look at quickly. In other words, they appeal to the “lean-forward” market-computer monitors rather than La-Z-Boys. Take for example artist J.otto Seibold’s Web site at www.jotto.com; in many ways the site is a perfect example of what works in the broadband Internet world. The site uses animation rather than video, so it works well within the bandwidth constraints of cable modems and digital subscriber lines: it’s far easier to stream the simple drawings of an animated short feature than it is to make video streams work, since so much less information needs to be transmitted. The site is interactive in humorous ways, appealing to the lean-forward crowd-your mouse can make a dog run around chasing birds, or make an animated character get on a bicycle and race after an ice-cream truck.

Videos that respect the Web’s limitations are also flourishing on sites that aggregate the work of many artists, such as AtomFilms (www.atomfilms.com) and iFilm (www.ifilm.com). These Web sites are meant as a platform to give exposure to unknown or emerging directors, and films on these sites are short, usually less than 15 minutes long. Directors on these sites often experiment with images that take advantage of the jerkiness of online video: characters, for example, might run in slow motion.

Take the film “405” on the iFilm Web site. Created on home computers by Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt, friends who in their day jobs create effects for television shows, the film depicts a jumbo jet landing on top of a sports utility vehicle in the middle of a Los Angeles freeway. The film “405” manages to tell a story in less than three minutes, and uses effects-like blurring the edges of the plane to denote speed-that translate effectively into the broadband medium. 

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