Despite Growing Pains, Rich Media Has Bright Future

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Rich media has a mixed reputation as an e-business tool largely because of performance problems. Most Web developers use it sparingly, if at all, avoiding the eye-candy syndrome of first-generation Web sites.


According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, the use of rich media in online advertising grew only modestly in 1999, representing a small fraction of the projected $4 billion spent in online advertising this year.


Nevertheless, the Web is entering the first phase of a gradual transition into a complete multimedia network, driven not only by entertainment, but by e-business. Today, the entire scope of e-commerce - including interactive advertising, online catalogs, and customer support - can benefit from the use of rich media in real, measurable ways.


Few debate that customers will spend more online when presented with interactive, high-fidelity merchandising. In the area of customer support, even limited uses of rich media such as interactive manuals or audio help links can significantly improve a customer's experience while reducing support costs.


A few case studies serve to bolster this thesis. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, using IBM HotMedia tools to build interactive product demonstrations, significantly increased online sales of gift shop items. MyBC.com, a portal site in Canada, reported a click-through of 11 percent running a HotMedia interactive concert promotion in a banner, compared to a click-through rate of under 2 percent for the static version.


Still, several hurdles must be overcome before the potential of rich media is fully realized, and this process is likely to be gradual rather than sudden. The reason for this can be understood by looking at the following inhibitors: lack of bandwidth, complex tools and no connection to business processes.


First, consider bandwidth. We are beginning to see strong growth in the availability of DSL and cable modems, but the most optimistic projections are for 20 percent of wired households to be using these devices by 2003.


This presents a problem for e-commerce sites: build separate areas with high bandwidth or design to the lowest common denominator. Most will take the latter path.


Second, the technologies for delivering rich media are overly complex today. It is burdensome to require commerce sites to deploy separate media servers or tracking servers in addition to their transaction, catalog or banner-serving infrastructure. Ideally, developers should be able to use rich media as easily as any other form of data, such as text or static images.


Third, rich-media content is largely built in a one-off manner, whereas it needs to be managed as part of the core business process. Rich media must be indexed in databases and content repositories for later search, reuse and personalization. It must also be integrated into the work flow processes of the business.


Developers using rich media in enterprise applications are already beginning to address these issues. In an enterprise network, bandwidth is less of an issue (though most IT managers are still wary of the effect of media traffic on the corporate network).


In addition, integrated support for rich media is appearing in enterprise application platforms. Applications such as corporate training and marketing/communications can now exploit rich media as a fundamental aspect of the business process, and not as a sideline activity.


Finally, there is another class of e-commerce sites that is beginning to use rich media extensively: those sites selling music, video and other entertainment.


These sites will stress the limits of the Web, and will drive the demand for broadband consumer access to the Web. Increased bandwidth, of course, will make it possible for current rich-media technologies to perform closer to users' expectations.


Today's rich media tools are like the quirky and difficult-to-maintain sports cars of the 60s, but they will become reliable sedans in the next few years. Developers will use them as readily as they use GIFs and JPEGs today. By then, they'll find new ways to bring the network to its knees. Virtual-reality e-business, anyone?

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