Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/01/17/multi_media/

A picture paints a thousand words

Moving multimedia into the mainstream

By Brian Heywood

Posted in Developer, 17th January 2007 12:48 GMT

In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams' main character's claim to fame is that he coded a facility into his employer's business software to convert the contents of a spreadsheet into a music score and then play it back via MIDI.

This addition to the application turned it into a bestseller as large corporations used it to create company songs based on their yearly accounts. While this is pretty frivolous it does illustrate how a multimedia feature could give a product an edge in a crowded marketplace.

It's been over 10 years since multimedia facilities were incorporated directly into the core of Windows and Macintosh operating systems, so where are the multimedia features in commercial applications?

This might seem to be an odd question if you think of your average spreadsheet or word processing application, but we've had the "Windows, Icon, Mouse Pointer" human interface model on our PC's desktop for more than two decades. So why hasn't any of this touchy-feely philosophy leaked into the programs that we use to run our businesses and write our code?

Perhaps the slow take-up was originally due to the lack of "rich media" resources. There's no point in having a database that can handle video if there's no footage available. However, this no longer holds - the tools to actually create the light fantastic and the cheerful noises are now freely available. In fact, it's never been easier to create video, audio or high quality graphics and photography.

So regardless of whether you use the latest high technology digital video camera or the recorder you find in your mobile phone, there are a large number of media production applications with varying levels of complexity available at affordable prices – or even for free.

There are plenty of paths into adding multimedia features to applications, either using the built-in features of the standard operating system API or by using the services of third party vendors. On the mobile device front, companies like Tao Group provide a middleware platform and an SDK to help applications developers.

The recent announcement of the Linux based FIC neo1973 mobile phone gives another path for breaking the mould, at least in the portable device space. However, back in the office software world the only commonly used application that has a well used multimedia element is PowerPoint and that still tends to be limited, perhaps more by the imagination of users and developers than the technology, to stills and text animation.

If you expand the concept of commercial software to take in the online world, there is a lot more action around, which is perhaps not surprising if you consider the multimedia possibilities of the World Wide Web. Online shops, information services and even Estate Agents can enhance the information available to potential customers by incorporating multimedia elements. To date these still tend to be pretty staid and don't actually represent any kind of "cutting edge" in the techniques or technology, so perhaps a better place to look for the future of multimedia is elsewhere on the web.

One example is the MySpace community which, despite all its obvious faults, provides a simple way for people to create a media rich web presence without needing any great programming skill. Browsing through the various pages you see an odd mixture of innocence and experience, good and bad design practices, and so on. The point is that the editing interface gives the user a lot of choice and a variety of tools for both creating their own MySpace page and for linking to related pages, searching and generally interacting with the rest of the online community.

Maybe we should be looking further away from the mainstream to find innovative ways to use multimedia in commercial and technical applications. For instance, consider IBM's deal with US electronics retailer Circuit City Stores to build a virtual store using Linden Labs' Second Life. So one possible future would have each customer using a kind of Gibson-esque cyberspace avatar that allows them to shop, access entertainment and have a virtual trial of a product or service, all from the comfort of home.

Now that Linden Labs is making some of the code which powers Second Life available under the GPL, even more possibilities arise for third party developers to get access to the virtual world. Just imagine using it to enable a geographically disparate software development team to work together on a large project.

IBM's "Secret Island" project on Second Life shows this is probably just round the corner, and it won't be the first or the last time technology from the games world has had a major effect on mainstream computing. ®