MBONE: Multicasting Tomorrow's Internet


Today, it's extremely difficult to imagine life without broadcasting. Broadcasting is the means by which we receive by far the greatest portion of the information we take in each day, and to be cut off from it is considered both unusual and, if done for any length of time, dangerous. At the same time, the sheer volume of advertising has probably led to a growing inability to separate important from unimportant information, and indeed to think about what we receive at all. That's why many of us vacation in places that actually deny our access to information. We seem to realize, somewhere underneath it all, that information overload is unhuman.

Given a choice, though (not to mention absolute political and societal power), few of us would eliminate the means by which broadcasting is accomplished. Radio is a continuous noisemaker, but it's a noise most of us have come both to accept and to expect. Television is criticized by many as a notoriously ineffective as a worthwhile entertainment medium, but the TV set has become an almost inevitable fixture in today's home (in the "have" countries, at least). Another, older form of broadcasting is the newspaper, which does not broadcast "signals" per se but which unquestionably operates as a daily disseminator of information in much the same way as radio and TV. In fact, as has been well noted, a newspaper like USA Today is little more than a print version of televised information, complete with graphical design and brevity of detail. Still, newspapers and similar publications are not typically considered broadcasting, at least not electronic broadcasting, and we'll stick to that norm here, restricting our discussion to radio, television, and computer networks.


Radio came first. It broadcast sound, and when it did so it completely revolutionized information dissemination. How? Consider the days before radio. To hear a political speech or debate, you and hundreds of others went to a meeting hall. To hear a new musical composition, you and hundreds of others went to a concert hall. To hear the news, you and hundreds (well, maybe not hundreds) of others went to the town square. If you wanted a slightly dated version of the news, you bought a newspaper, took it home, and read it.

All these things still go on, of course. But radio changed them. With radio, it was suddenly possible for you and thousands of others to hear a political speech or debate while sitting, isolated from one another, in the comfort of your living room. You could sit in the same room, again all by yourself, and hear musical concerts and even full operas. And the news could be offered to you every hour of the day, constantly updated and less time-consuming to digest. You and everyone in your town, your entire state for that matter, could hear the same material without ever appearing in the same physical location.

What this did was to change, forever, our expectations about receiving information. For information to be considered useful, it had to be timely, and it also had to be conveniently available. Newspapers quickly became a means of fleshing out pieces of information and of providing information of more personal interest but less regional or national interest. Real news was available immediately after it happened, and it was suddenly your responsibility to keep up with it all. It's possible, in fact, that the advent of broadcast radio was the beginning of today's obsession with absolutely up-to-date current events on a global scale. Before radio, you could be up-to-date about local events through the "grapevine," but a knowledge of the outside world had to wait for the newspapers. And even here things were changing, as the grapevine quickly became a function of another growing technology, the telephone. The radio and the telephone, exclusively aural media both, cast a huge shadow over the future history of the dissemination of information.

Radio changed one other thing -- the experience of theater. On the one hand, you were able to receive broadcasts of theatrical events, such as operas. On the other, a new type of theater emerged, short dramas and comedies designed and written specifically for the new medium. Knowing that you were willing to sit in your living room with the radio on, producers decided to supply entertainment (both frivolous and serious) of a kind never before available. The weekly broadcast of ongoing series began with radio, taking advantage of the the medium's immediacy, convenience, and ephemerality. These were programs for the moment, and they became fully accepted as such.


Television expanded on radio's capabilities by adding video. That's so obvious it seems pointless to write down, but it's no less significant for being obvious. Radio offered a limited view of information and performance, after all; you could hear, but you could not see, and as such was precisely the opposite of the newspaper and the magazine. Cinema fed both senses -- seeing and hearing -- but it was much less immediate than radio. There still needed to develop a medium that would combine radio's immediacy and comfort with the visual capabilities of cinema, newspapers, and live theater. That medium proved to be television.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of television as a medium of information in this century. Liking or disliking this medium has nothing to do with it; the fact remains, it has utterly dominated all other methods of acquiring information. Think of the great moments in television history -- assassinations, space journeys, natural disasters, political events, van chases, Sally Field's Oscar acceptance speech -- and they all point to television. Think of the enormous effect of the coverage of the Vietnam War on the U.S. populace, another television experience, and then, years later, of the brilliant (if scary) manipulation of television by the U.S. military during the Gulf War. For information to be considered completely useful today, it must not only be immediate and convenient, it must also engage our visual and auditory senses together. Especially the visual.

In many ways, television is a perfect medium for disseminating information. And, to be sure, it has single-handedly conveyed more information to more people than any other medium. As it turns out, however, it has become severely limited in this capability, largely because of a commercial model that preaches audience size above all other concerns. In other words, and ironically, television has become limited by the very fact that it is a broadcast medium, that the broadness is expected (by its inevitable financiers, the advertisers) to grow larger at all times. The result has been a limitation in programming types and topics, a point that remains true even with the variety of specialty channels coming to the fore.

Perhaps the most important effect of television on the MBONE has been our acceptance of television's audio and visual ability to convey information. As soon as we realized that we could experience live video on television, it was only a matter of time until we wanted to use the medium for an enormously important genre in business communication, the meeting. Meetings are nothing more than a limited number of people getting together to discuss issues of common interest, and their main limitation is the fact that all the participants have to be in the same room at the same time. Why not have a meeting with people at a remote location, with their faces displayed on a television screen, and their voices coming in over the airwaves? And, in return, they'll see and hear you via TV screens as well.

The idea caught on, and it became known as videoconferencing. This idea is at the heart of the MBONE, but it's important to realize its close relationship with television, particularly television's ability to convey information on a real-time basis using both video and audio capabilities. Videoconferencing via the MBONE is one of the most exciting immediate applications for business, and videoconferencing is a seemingly natural extension of the communications abilities of television itself.

In discussions of broadcasting, radio and television are two obvious phenomena. Less obvious, perhaps, but equally important for our purposes, is the advent of computer networking, in particular wide-area networking and internetworking. Had it not been for the ability of computers to exchange data with each other across large distances, the MBONE couldn't have come into existence. What must be said, however, is that the MBONE uses the Internet's broadcasting capabilities, and these aren't frequently talked about.

The Internet is well known as a person-to-person communications system. Electronic mail, in fact, remains its primary application. But electronic mail and newsgroups are broadcast technologies as well. When you send a message to a newsgroup or a mailing list, you are broadcasting on a one-to-many basis. You, an individual, broadcast information to whoever happens to be tuned into the channel -- i.e., the newsgroup or mailing list -- to which you transmit. This is, however, broadcasting of a different kind, because unlike with TV or radio, the message is not received in real time. To watch a newscast, all viewers turn on their TVs at an agreed-upon time (11 p.m., for instance); newsgroup subscribers, by contrast, can read your message whenever they feel like it, secure in the knowledge that it will be there. When it comes to time-dependent broadcasting, the Internet is only beginning to demonstrate usefulness.

But the MBONE is not bound to time-dependant broadcasting -- "on demand" technology allows MBONE users to download speeches, lectures and concerts at any time (stopping and restarting as the user's whim) without waiting for a predetermined "broadcast" time.


The third technology necessary for the MBONE's development was computer multimedia. Much hyped and coming to us with endless promises, multimedia is nothing more than the incorporation of video and audio technologies into computer programs. Nothing more, but also nothing less. Most of us can remember when computers couldn't do these things at all.

A long, long time ago (which in computer terms means about 30 years), computers didn't have graphics. In fact, they didn't even have monitors on which graphics might be displayed. It wasn't until a full ten years after the beginnings of the Internet/ARPAnet in 1969 that a home computer with even rudimentary graphics capabilities became available, and from the time it debuted the Apple II became a mecca for multimedia designers. People bought the Apple II, it seemed, for two main reasons. They wanted to use a revolutionary program called VisiCalc, the very first spreadsheet package, and they wanted to play games.

The Apple II had sound in the form of beeps. Soon, a peripheral became available that allowed better sound. With that sound, combined with graphics that looked notably like line drawings, artists and game designers had a multimedia environment. Back then, they didn't call it a "multimedia environment," but they had it nonetheless.

While this was going on, of course, serious multimedia research was going on in computer labs around the world. Most of us saw the results in media such as cinema, where computers were beginning to be used for the creation of special effects. But for home computer buyers, two hugely popular products brought multimedia's potential home. First came the Atari 2600, a game machine that was in its day what the Nintendo became several years later. This was a machine that connected directly to the television, the most popular multimedia device of all time, and delivered interactive entertainment with both graphics and sound into the living room.

And then, in the early 1980s, the Commodore 64 exploded onto the scene, changing the public's perception of computers for good. Right out of the box, the 64 offered sophisticated graphics and sounds capabilities, and in a move atypical for the company, Commodore actually promoted it. It became the favorite design platform for designers of games, educational software, easy-to-use art programs, and early music packages. It's easy to dismiss the 64's influence because of its rapid decline, but doing so would be wrong. The machine mattered.

Shortly after the introduction of the 64, IBM introduced its first PC, and multimedia development took a huge step backward. The IBM-PC was expensive, monochromatic, and text-only. Its idea of sound was a beep whenever something went wrong, and it offered no graphics capabilities whatsoever. It was bland, it was ugly, and corporate America thronged to it. Graphics and sound might be nice for home use, as the Commodore 64 proved, but real computer users didn't need these things at all.

In 1984, Apple brought the Macintosh onto the scene. In many ways, it was a less capable multimedia machine than the Commodore 64, and well behind the soon-to-be-introduced Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. But Apple did two things very right. They introduced the graphical user interface and the mouse to the public, and they marketed their machine extremely well. Artists and others in the non-business and non-science communities picked up on the Mac immediately, and it wasn't long until it became the favored machine for graphics designers and desktop publishers. It remains so to this day.

When the Amiga hit the market in 1985, it had built-in multimedia capabilities beyond all but the most multimedia-driven computers today. It had separate chips for sound and graphics (taking the load off the main processor), and it spawned games with graphics and animation quality that PC designers are only now beginning to match. The Amiga never became the machine it could have been for a variety of reasons, but its influence was widespread.

From the standpoint of multimedia, the decade since the the arrival of the Macintosh and the Amiga has been little more than an attempt by PC designers to catch up to these two machines and their enhancements. Sound cards and video boards are now available by the score for PC owners, while the Mac continues its multimedia excellence. CD-ROM at least partly took care of the huge expansion of file sizes, and now allows computers to play lengthy video sequences with top-quality sound. Computer makers want their machines to look and sound like enhanced televisions (miniature cinemas if you will), and this goal is beginning to be realized.

For the MBONE, computer multimedia was a prerequisite. The MBONE relies on the fact that video and audio can work together, and that computer users can display and hear it. Without multimedia-capable computers, an MBONE broadcast would be pointless, even worse than listening to a TV station through your radio. The MBONE's future relies on the convergence of multimedia with several other related technologies.

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