The leap to multimedia -- it all depends on disk space

by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com

PS added Jan. 2001


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This article was heard on the radio program "The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP in Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in Plymouth, Mass, and is also available as RealAudio at www.thereport.com

Can we help you build an Internet business? Richard Seltzer is an independent Internet writer/speaker/consultant. For details, see www.samizdat.com/consult.html.


I've been a text-bigot for years. Not that I don't enjoy seeing a neat picture or hearing great sound or watching a well-designed videoclip on the Web. But, with text, I was in control, and with everything else I was just another passive consumer. Text I could easily create and post on free Web space and I could count on people finding my pages without me having to spend money on advertising because search engines would index my text, and many people navigate the Web by way of search engines. Multimedia was beyond my creative reach. Besides, I told myself, the bandwidth isn't there yet. Even with DSL and cable modem speeds, video is still a bit of a joke.

To me the difference between the text-based Web and the multimedia Web was like the difference between the days of the Atari 800 and Commodore 64 and the days of Nintendo and Sega, back in the 1980s. With the Atari 800 and Commodore 64, you could buy cartridges or games on floppy, but you had a keyboard, and you also could write your own games in BASIC or even Assembly language and type in the code for games from magazine articles. And the games you wrote, you could share with friends or even sell to magazines. Then along came the Nintendo Entertainment System, followed by Sega Genesis, and the game play and graphics were so far superior that older systems were simply blown away. And these new systems were totally passive -- there was no keyboard; the only games you could play were the ones you bought as cartridges.

So I dreaded the coming of truly high-speed Internet and the inevitable onrush on prepackaged, high-production cost multimedia content, that little guys, like me, couldn't hope to compete with.

Then a year ago, I got a digital camera -- a Sony Mavica, because it stores its images on plain ordinary floppies, making it very inexpensive and easy to store files and move them to my PC. I got it primarily because I wanted to sell at online auctions, and photos were essential to that. But I found myself taking the camera along on family trips and taking pictures galore. It was easy to view them on my PC, and since my PC was relatively recent I had a few gigabytes of storage space to spare, so it was no big deal transferring everything from the floppies to the hard drive. I even put a few on the Web, but there I had to be very selective, because of the limitations of disk space.

Last weekend I put a multimedia book on the Web -- nearly 20 Megabytes for a single book. Before that, my entire Web site, which gets about 1200 to 1400 unique users a day, took up less than 15 Megabytes. So why was I suddenly being so wasteful? What's going on?

What I hadn't realized, but should have, is that disk space on the Web, not bandwidth was the main barrier to the proliferation of creative do-it-yourself multimedia. Quality streaming audio has been available from RealAudio, working well even with a 28K modem, for several years. And Real.com makes available for free the RealProducer software you need for creating audio and video files. That software had been available for quite some time, but I had never paid attention, because there was no way I could store files that size on the Web. Sure, I could do it just for my own consumption, taking advantage of those extra gigabytes on the hard drive on my PC, but Web space was still precious.

Now, all of a sudden, disk space on the Web is free; and that makes an enormous difference, unleashing my creative instincts, and probably the instincts of many others as well.

A couple years ago, free Web-hosting sites like Xoom, Geocities, and Tripod typically made available 10 Megabytes. Now they've all gone up considerably in their limits, and at least one NBCi www.nbci.com (which bought Xoom) offers unlimited disk space for free. [NB -- this free space has its limitations: slow response time and you wind up with an address that looks like members.xoom.com/rseltzer, rather than your own domain name. See the PS below for an alternative.]

So I took The Lizard of Oz, a fantasy that I had self-published as a paperback back in the 1970s, and recorded it, chapter by chapter using the microphone on my PC and the RealProducer software. Then I used Bob Zwick's free eBookIt software (www.cottagemicro.com/ebooks). I wound up with an online edition of my book that includes the text and illustrations very slickly and readably presented, and with a mini RealPlayer control panel right on the page, so you can play the narration. To use it, you need to use Microsoft's Internet Explorer and you need the RealPlayer, but the free version will do just fine, and it works great. Check it out at www.samizdat.com/liz

This means that anybody can now make attractive and useful audio books. A high school class or even an elementary school class could, with the equipment and Internet connection they already have, make online editions of the classics -- capturing the text from the Gutenberg Project, recording the narration themselves, and posting the massive files in free Web space. They could do the same thing with their own writing as well. And anyone, anywhere in the world, with an ordinary modem-based connection to the Internet could enjoy these creations.

In other words, a revolution has happened, quietly. And it didn't happen because of some great new technological advance or some massive increase in bandwidth. Rather with the decreasing cost of high-capacity hard drives, someone made the business decision to offer unlimited disk space on the Web for free, and that has made all the difference.

PS (Jan. 8, 2001) -- I just moved my Web site (samizdat.com) to www.hispeed.com. This new ISP is in California. I live in Massachusetts and my former ISP was in Massachusetts as well. But while it was a long distance call for me to get support from the local ISP, it's a toll free call to reach the one in California. And while the local ISP didn't have support during the night and only a skeleton crew on weeksends and holidays, the new one offers 24/7 support. Most important, the new ISP offers unlimited disk space, unlimited traffic, and a virtual domain account (meaning I can use my own domain name) all for just $19.95/month. Suddenly, I'm tempted to experiment with audio and graphics. (There's a lot to learn.) In addition, I now find it handy to use my Web space as temporary storage for moving documents from one PC to another (by ftp), and also to post large documents (larger than what email systems can handle) in my Web space and pointing recipients to the URL rather than having to snail mail ZIP disk or CD ROMs.


This site is Published by B&R Samizdat Express, 33 Gould St., West Roxbury, MA 02132. (617) 469-2269. seltzer@samizdat.com


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