Adding Multimedia: It’s Hard to Be Cool

Multimedia is cool and it can be compelling, but implementing it is hard. For many of online businesses, it’s worth the effort. Maybe you want to offer video of customer testimonials. Perhaps you want to show how your product works. Lengthy support converstions could be cut short, if you can show customers how to fix a problem.

There are some good reason to consider multimedia. However, creating and editing content for broadcast on the Web is still not a simple matter unless you invest in some expensive tools, while broadcasting it is still another headache: Anything remotely popular will require a pretty wide pipe (which will be fully utilized only at peak usage times) and lots of processing power, never mind some sort of management savvy to ensure that high traffic doesn’t crash your server.

But multimedia can also be a compelling tool to attract users to your e-commerce business. As the lines between Web and broadcast are blurring (witness ABC News’s decision to place additional Democratic National Convention coverage directly on the Internet), there’s a good business reason to place multimedia on your Web site.

Don’t Try This At Home
Unless you’re ready to make the plunge into expensive multimedia serving on your own, you’ll want to work with an hosting provider to host and serve the multimedia. Most ISPs do support multimedia in some fashion, which makes good business sense for them: Most have the bandwidth to handle the traffic load even at peak times, they have the management expertise to handle busy servers and they have the necessary hardware and software to serve multimedia files.

Usually, anyway. There’s no such single entity as multimedia, which means you’ll need to check with an hosting provider to manage your multimedia. Before you get to that point, you’ll need to know exactly what you want to do, which means a short explanation of multimedia on the Web.

The True Meaning of Multimedia
Multimedia can take several forms. Some people consider a Flash animation that includes sound to be multimedia, while it can also take the form of an audio file that can be downloaded on demand or a streaming media file (audio, video or both) that can be viewed on demand. It doesn’t take much expertise to create an audio file — you can just attach a microphone to a Mac or a PC and then record away with included tools — but these efforts are low-tech at best.

That’s why you’ll want something a little more advanced. My hosting provider, for example, supports a variety of multimedia formats: Shockware, Real, Flash, Quicktime, Windows Media, Vivo and Macromedia Generator 2. Chances are pretty good that anyone seeking to distribute multimedia content via the Web will be happy with one of these formats. A Helix Server from RealNetworks will serve a variety of multimedia formats: RealVideo 10 (streaming media approaching VHS/DVD quality), RealAudio 10, Flash 4 (streaming multimedia in the SMIL format), MPEG-1 (video), MP3 (audio), QuickTime (audio and video) and Windows Media (audio and video). The Helix Server handles all the heavy lifting of serving the multimedia file, though you’ll need to make sure that the file is properly encoded and labeled. It also handles the heavy work of communicating directly with a client to determining proper transfer rate.

You can also use an ISP’s Helix Server to record the audio as well, so long as your PC supports multimedia audio and/or video. Again, we’re not talking CD-quality sound here; it’s closer to good AM radio, which is adequate for most uses. After you initiate a recording session, the audio and/or video is transmitted to the Helix Server, which then encodes the data and saves it to a Real format. You can then create links to that multimedia presentation on your own Web site.

Let the Multimedia Flow With Streaming
In these cases, we’ve discussed static multimedia, which can visitors to your Web site can download at any time. Streaming media is a different beast. More akin to a live radio broadcast, streaming media is sent out via specific streams to specific users. The more streams, the more an hosting provider is likely to charge, as well as a one-time setup fee. Helix Server can handle streaming media, while other ISPs also offer the lower-cost Shoutcast streaming-media server.

Prices for the streams are usually charged in a range of simultaneous streams, such as 0-25, 26-50, 50-99 and more than 100, as well as the actual amount of data served. The payments usually don’t rely on actual usage, but rather the number of streams reserved for you at your hosting provider. While we’re not going into a discussion of specific costs (as they tend to vary by hosting provider), here’s a ballpark: if you’re serving 40 streams simultaneously nightly, you can usually find an hosting provider that can provide this service for $50 a month after startup fees.

Not every hosting provider supports multimedia, and some support it to varying degrees. If you’re shopping for a new hosting provider, you’ll want to do your homework and be specific about your needs. Some ISPs don’t support streaming media or use older versions of multimedia servers, which won’t do you a lot of good. A comparison is absolutely necessary.

Unless you’re going whole-hog into multimedia and are willing to manage your own bandwidth and servers, an hosting provider is going to be a valuable friend if you decide to take the multimedia plunge. Managing multimedia can be a daunting task without any expertise, so it’s usually best to outsource the task.

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