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Because streaming media can cater to special interest groups that span the globe, the potential for the creation of strong virtual communities is high. Streaming media s interactivity features aid in interactions
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between real people, so communities of purely online acquaintances can form quickly. The return to notions of community is healthy, in times where physical communities are made impossible due to commuting and the pressure of modern lifestyles. People already turn to cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, and logging on to news Web sites (in addition to watching broadcast television reports) in times of crisis. Streaming media will provide yet another way for people in crisis to find missing persons, organize relief efforts, coordinate resources, check on relatives and friends, and give comfort and support to one another.
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Because streaming media makes it easy to avoid ads designed to steal your attention in some way, the only advertising that has a hope of working, in the long term, is that which seeks a consumer s permission to be shown. Opt-in advertising actually benefits both consumers and advertisers. Consumers suffer from less information overload, can exercise choice over how their attention is spent, and never need feel that they are being imposed upon, since they are only shown advertisements of genuine interest to them. The advertiser wastes less money pitching to disinterested consumers, can individualize the messages, can directly address smaller demographic groups, can measure instantaneously the effect of advertising expenditure on sales, and avoids annoying and alienating potential customers. Streaming media technology has the potential to revolutionize advertising, changing it into something unrecognizable to the advertising and marketing executives of the television era.
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When a technology is poised on the edge of becoming a mainstream product, which appeals to the majority of consumers, as streaming media currently is, there are no guarantees that the offering will make it. Many products and technologies have failed to make the leap into widespread acceptability. Recalling CB radio, the Sega Dreamcast games console, and the Betamax video format serves to illustrate that point. These technologies all worked well enough, but other factors relegated them to history.
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This section will discuss some of the factors that could stall the uptake of streaming media technology. This list could never be considered complete, but it represents some of the higher risk factors for the evolution of streaming media technology into a widely used communications medium. Streaming media s success depends almost entirely on the success of broadband. However, broadband is in trouble at present. Excite@Home, one of the US s more high-profile broadband providers went broke in spectacular fashion. Other broadband providers in the US such as Covad, Northpoint, and Rhythms are all dead or dying, according to pundits like Robert X. Cringely,* killed by phone companies with no interest in helping to create broadband competition. The incumbent local phone companies aren t doing well with their DSL efforts either. Their motivation for getting into broadband in the first place was to comply with the 1996 Telecommunications Act and to keep competitive local exchange carriers from stealing their business. With competition severely weakened and the 1996 law merely permission for them to spend lots of money getting into the long distance business, where they make no money at all, they have little incentive to put more money into broadband infrastructure. DSL equipment makers are seeing flat sales and declining profits. Venture capital has cut back investment in companies that might have entered the market to take over from the ones that are dead or dying. There also isn t a single company providing high bandwidth content to mass consumers that is making any money on it. Third-generation mobile systems are being scaled back and canceled the world over. The simple fact seems to be that we really can t afford all that bandwidth at the price it is today. The effect of broadband s slow takeup was felt by one of streaming media s leading companies, RealNetworks, which cut 15% of its workforce in July 2001. What is really going on with streaming media is a lack of industry coordination. Broadband is useless without applications. Applications require content. Content producers require an audience. Audiences need reasons to buy into broadband. Thus the stalemate perpetuates. While the streaming media industry cycles from a situation where one sector is forging ahead while the other supporting sectors are waiting and seeing, to the opposite extreme of doom, gloom, and severe cutbacks, the pioneers will continue to take arrows in their backs.
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*Robert X. Cringely, the author of the best-selling expos of silicon valley s conspicuous success stories, Accidental Empires, has been a long-time commentator on high technology, presenting his sometimes irreverent and contrary views on PBS television and his website I, Cringely, His views are reportedly based on information he gleans from unnamed industry insiders.
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