Webopedia (http://www.webopedia.com/) defines streaming as, "A technique for transferring data such that it can be processed as a steady and continuous stream." We can expand that definition by enumerating media types: video, audio, text, hyperlinks, animation, and so on. We can also give it a purpose: to facilitate and accelerate a user's access to information.
To put it all together then: Streaming is a technical re-ordering of data that makes it possible for a user to view and interact with media information without having to wait for it to download entirely to his or her computer. Instead of waiting for a five (or 10 or 50) megabyte file to be transferred over the Internet -- a process which could take hours -- a user is able to begin viewing the material while later portions of the presentation continue to download in the background, ready to be shown when they are needed, which is called buffering.
In the graphic below, the streamed medium is housed on a remote server. It is sent over the Internet to a local (client) computer.
it is clear from our definition above that many types of media can be streamed,
most people tend to think of streaming video. It should also be clear
that there are many technical solutions to streaming, but this page will
confine itself to dealing primarily with applications from "The Big
Three": RealMedia from Real Networks, QuickTime from Apple, and Windows
Media from Microsoft.
Asking which streaming application is best is a bit like asking which kind of car you should buy. People will give you different answers based on their personal preferences, experiences, and prejudices. You aren't likely to get a definitive answer. To be perfectly frank, any one of the major applications, RealMedia, QuickTime, or Windows Media, are likely to meet your technical needs. The three systems are so close in performance that there really isn't a great deal of difference. The most important consideration, for most people, is the infrastructure in which they will be operating. If your institution has a QuickTime server, but doesn't support RealMedia or Windows Media, your choice has been pretty much made for you. And that's not necessarily a bad thing; any of the major applications will do just about anything you want.
Types of Streaming
It seems that when most people think of streaming, they think of video. But a video stream (usually taken to include an audio track) is only one type of stream. Audio can be streamed alone; as can pictures, text, hyperlinks, animation, and other material. In fact, streaming video only works well in certain specialized cases and is very bandwidth intensive. Better results may sometimes be obtained by synchronizing several different types of media streams. The example below provides a demonstration of different media streams (http://www.itc.iastate.edu/creative/streamingdemos.html).
Creating and Distributing Streaming Media
Creating streaming media can be quite simple. Pre-packaged software tools, like Real Producer, QuickTime Pro, Camtasia, and Windows Media Producer, are readily available and most require little knowledge, but a lot of trial and error, to use. Using them efficiently and preparing the media to be compressed, encoded, streamed, and placed on a specialized streaming server for distribution, is a bit more technical. A comprehensive discussion of all the possible options and software settings for streaming media and all these different tools is beyond the scope of this destination. We suggest you talk to your local video compression expert to learn more.
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