The World Wide Web, the audio and video sector of the Internet, got another push in the direction of broadcast television Dec. 7. Microsoft announced it would support Sun Microsystems’ Java programming language, which allows Web site developers to incorporate animation, audio and other features into their work.
While the bandwidth of traditional phone lines is still too narrow to carry full-motion video and stereo audio to most home Internet users, the quality and interactivity of images should nonetheless improve as more companies use Java.
Microsoft’s endorsement of the product is significant because it makes Java the standard means of passing around data on the World Wide Web – much as the 525-line NTSC video system is the means of transmitting broadcast images in North America.
Furthermore, in the same way that TV signals reach viewers instantaneously, without needing to be stored on a home system, Java allows computer data to stream directly from server to user, skipping a time-consuming download.
Rare move for Microsoft
Some industry observers were surprised by the Microsoft licensing agreement, since Microsoft rarely embraces a product it didn’t develop or acquire.
“If anybody would have put up a fight, it would have been Microsoft,” said Joshua Wexler, head of interactive development at Threshold Entertainment, which recently announced plans to spin the popular CD-ROM game “The 7th Guest” into a feature film.
But software industry analysts maintain that Microsoft, which dominates the PC operating system market with Windows, was slow in developing Internet strategies.
Microsoft’s agreement with Sun makes sense, given that Java was being given away free on Netscape, said George Brenner, VP and chief information officer at MCA. “That blows away anything Microsoft was going to market.”
For the entertainment industry, the widespread acceptance of Java will mean greater opportunity to create eye-catching images that reach the majority of users, regardless of what modem or chip they have.
“The entertainment industry is waiting for the bandwidth to get cheap so they can send video. They’ll be waiting a long time,” said Eric Schmidt, chief technical officer at Sun Microsystems, who signed the agreement with Microsoft. Java uses compressed data, meaning a wide pipeline isn’t necessary to send animated images.
Schmidt said the programs run well using Intel’s 486 chips, or their equivalent from other manufacturers. They run even better using the equivalent of a Pentium chip, which Schmidt notes is found in more than half the computers sold.
But Threshold’s Wexler plays down Microsoft’s importance, emphasizing instead Sun’s role in pushing forward the possibilities of the World Wide Web. “Most browsers and platforms would support Java anyway, but because it’s so network-friendly, Java will allow the entertainment industry to develop programming for different platforms simultaneously,” he said.
Whereas Wexler and others believe that Java will bring new creative options to entertainment companies – perhaps even resulting in more original content – some developers are more skeptical.
“I don’t think Java will make original entertainment happen on the Web,” said Mark Jeffrey, director of online ventures at the Palace Group, part of the Warner Music Group. “Java lets you expand the functionality of the Web browser, but I’m not sure that’s related to a commitment to original content. Until the studios figure out a business model, their dominant approach to the Web will be as a promotional vehicle.”