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Windows on the Web
-- by Paul Silverman
Whether you're A novice or a seasoned Web wayfarer, you've probably received the message, "This page requires a plug-in for optimal performance." You probably decided you'd get along just fine without the little gizmo and resumed your journey.
By brushing past that message, you may have cheated yourself out of pages and pages of exciting content. Real-time video, CD-quality sound, rich animation, 3D games and applications are all readily available over 28.8Kb-per-second connections-and most of these goodies won't cost you a penny.
By extending the functionality of a standard browser, plug-in technology enables developers to create and publish content that goes beyond HTML, Java or ActiveX standards. Developers can write unique applications not supported by standard Web languages and make them available via the Web through mini helper apps for Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. These helper apps can often be as simple as a bookmark manager or an e-mail spell checker. They can also be elaborate enough to remind you why the Web is referred to as the multimedia portion of the Internet.
Even if you connect to the Web with a 28.8Kbps modem, you can still enjoy full-length video and CD-quality sound, thanks to the compression technology of Progressive Networks. The company's RealAudio and RealVideo have quickly become standards for the playback and recording of streaming sound and video over the Web. Media and entertainment giants C-SPAN, Warner Brothers, ESPNET SportsZone and Sports Illustrated have embraced the technology and now offer free news, sportscasts, live concerts, music videos and educational programs over the Internet. For a listing of sites offering Real content, visit AudioNet (http://www.audionet.com) and the Timecast site guide (http://www.timecast.com)
Progressive Networks offers two forms of the RealPlayer plug-in for playback of RealAudio and RealVideo content. A free edition for individual users (http://www.real.com/products/vaplayer.htm) provides standard playback support for sites offering Real media content.
Other Web media producers have chosen VivoActive streaming technology, which, unlike Real, doesn't require its own server on the host's end. Windows AVI files are compacted and embedded into an HTML page and served up in a VIV file via a standard HTTP server. As a result, Web surfers behind a firewall will have no trouble accessing the VIV files. (RealAudio and Video users connecting through a proxy server may experience problems when trying to play back Real media files. For information on configuring the RealAudio Player and your firewall to support streaming Real content, see http://www.real.com/help/firewall.)
Web sites currently producing VivoActive content include CMP Media's TechWeb (http://www.techweb.com), First-TV (http://www.first-tv.com) and CNN Interactive (http://www.cnn.com). For a complete list of Vivo-enabled sites, see http://www.vivo.com/gallery/vasites.htm. The Vivo plug-in is free.
Other entries in the Web audio and video market include VDOnet Corp.'s VDOLive video player (http://www.vdo.net), Apple's QuickTime player for the MOV video format (http://www.quicktime.apple.com/dev/devweb.html) and LiveUpdate's Crescendo MIDI player (http://www.liveupdate.com/proddes.html)
Make way for multimedia
When it comes to full-motion multimedia animation and applications on the Web, Macromedia's Shockwave remains the standard. Using Macromedia's development tools, authors have created full-motion, quality-sound games, music videos, movie trailers and advertising-with impressive results. The Shockwave plug-in comes in many forms. The Works version lets you play Shockwave applications written in any of Macromedia's development tools, including Flash and Director. You can download this free plug-in for Navigator or IE from http://www.macromedia.com. Once you've installed the plug-in, take a look at http://www.macromedia.com/shockzone for an animated introduction to the world of Shockwave.
Adobe's PDF (Portable Document Format) lets you quickly convert AVI and MOV files, interactive forms, and highly formatted documents or spreadsheets containing a wide range of graphics formats and fonts into a format suitable for Web browsing. Using the Adobe Capture plug-in in conjunction with Acrobat, content producers can even scan documents and convert them to PDF.
PDF is also completely cross-platform, so people with a browser and the free Acrobat viewer can view the same PDF documents on Windows, Macintosh and UNIX machines. Many electronic publishing, educational and government organizations use PDF to publish their documents on the Web. See http://www.adobe.com/prodindex/acrobat/pdfweb.html for a directory of sites offering Acrobat-enabled pages.
The VBScript core behind Microsoft's ActiveX technology is another powerful development tool. Web programmers can design highly interactive applications for IE. (WinMag's own 20 Questions trivia game at http://www.winmag.com/fun/trivia1 is a perfect example.)
For a glimpse of the ScriptActive utility and plug-in in action, check out our trivia game, or go to NCompass Labs' showcase at http://www.ncompasslabs.com/scriptactive/index.htm.
If 3D is what you want, you'll find some great new plug-ins that take advantage of the
improving technology. When VRML first hit the Web scene three years ago, critics said the notion of delivering compelling 3D content over a 28.8Kbps line was ridiculous. However, with the arrival of the more compact and versatile version 2.0, more and more educational and scientific
organizations have begun developing VRML worlds. Similarly, browser manufacturers have been busy upgrading their plug-ins to support version 2.0's advanced capabilities. So if you've got the PC power to handle 3D rendering, check out these VRML plug-ins:
-- Cosmo Player (http://vrml.sgi.com/
cosmoplayer). Produced by 3D graphics pioneer Silicon Graphics, Cosmo Player is the default VRML viewer for Netscape Communicator. It's also available as a plug-in for IE and Navigator 3.0. Its excellent interface and navigation options make Cosmo Player a must-have.
-- WorldView 2.0 (http://www.intervista.com/products/worldview/index.html). Intervista's plug-in supports Microsoft DirectX, which includes Direct3D APIs. With strong performance and navigation, WorldView is the basis for one of Microsoft's upcoming VRML browsers for IE 3.0.
-- Passport 2.0 (http://www.blacksun.com/products/passport/docs/index.html). This Netscape 3.0 and IE 3.0 plug-in from Black Sun Interactive integrates with your VRML browser. Passport lets you not only view and navigate VRML worlds, but also interact and chat with other VRML avatars.
Navigator and IE users looking to explore live chat on the Web should check out ichat's free plug-in. With support for both real-time Web chat and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) connectivity, the client opens a new frame in your browser when you enter a chat-enabled Web page. From there, you can engage in real-time communication with users while continuing to browse the Web. You'll find a list of chat rooms and upcoming events supported by ichat at http://www.ichat.com/chatsites/index.html. Ichat also offers a Rooms server application to let you chat-enable your site. Get info at http://www.ichat.com/contact/salesz.html.
New plug-in utilities and add-ons for Navigator and IE pop up on the Web every day. If you've got a specific need or have ever said, "Gee, I wish my browser could ...," chances are someone's already found a solution.
For instance, WinMag receives a lot of inquiries from readers looking for spell checkers for their browsers' e-mail. We point them to Inso Corp., maker of CyberSpell, a handy add-on for Navigator versions 2.0 and later. Download a trial version at http://www.inso.com/consumer/cyberspell/cybrspll.htm.
Another day, another plug-in
You'll find plenty of other utilities and niche products on the Web. Netscape's Components site (http://www.netscape.com/comprod/mirror/
Now that you've had a taste of just how fulfilling your Web experience can be, you may think twice before ignoring that message urging you to download the latest plug-in. In fact, you might even look forward to it.