The problem is down to the Internet’s success. The sheer weight of numbers online means that streaming audio and video using the paid-for, legitimate, server-driven likes of RealPlayer and MediaPlayer means greater costs for rights holders.
That RealNetworks is desperate to hack its way out of this problem was highlighted recently when the media leviathan released most of the source code to its software. The move is designed to make RealPlayer more robust and open to the cutting edge of the programming community, and allow it to extend more seamlessly into other environments like wireless.
But it’s physics not business which RealNetworks is competing with. During the past five years the client-server model, where more and more of the load is placed on the server, has been steadily growing. The result has been thinner and thinner clients and bulkier server software expected to do more and more.
The practical upshot of this is exactly what was highlighted on 11 September: the destruction of online media properties as vast audiences tried to log on for the latest information. As many of us found out at the time, it was email, which relies on a much more distributed architecture, which held up to the strain.
But Gartner Group argues that time is being called on the old client-server model. Two things will change the way we access online resources: Web services and P2P technologies. These will give rise to a heavier software client capable of more than the humble Web browser. Supporters call this the ‘rich client’, as opposed to the more inflammatory ‘fat client’.
The advent of the rich client concept has been prompted by the increasing weakness of HTML Web browsers. For a start, Web-based applications are unavailable when you’re disconnected from the Web; and second, cramming the browser with code to perform other functions leads to slower performance.
The solution is to store more of the logic and data needed for complex applications at the punters’ end, on the client platform. To supplement this code-crunching power, the client will dynamically draw in functionality from other servers or other clients which are inactive at that moment – exactly what file-sharing music at the moment is like.
And guess who has already started to incorporate P2P thinking into its future? Yes, Microsoft. Microsoft’s .Net framework and Windows XP see the client software not as a cast-in-stone package so much as a recent ‘cache’ of the latest code.
So what is RealNetworks going to do when someone comes up with a P2P technology that distributes streaming audio and video without recourse to its weighty server technology, which costs thousands to install and is liable to fall over whenever there’s a surge of traffic which exceeds its capabilities?
In London, four programmers have formed a small company to create a P2P software application to take on the likes of RealNetworks and Windows MediaPlayer. What they plan could be revolutionary: a distributed system for handling vast, live streaming Webcasts, with little or no latency, able to handle the largest audiences. They foresee Webcasts, with no bandwidth restraints, and up to 80% bandwidth savings.
It’s P2P technology that connects directly with other peers over protocols other than HTTP which looks like becoming the new software battleground.