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STREAMING MEDIA

As a radio and media junkie, one of the coolest things I like about the net is having the ability to stream both audio and video.   As soon as I saw my first copy of "Real Player" in action a decade or so ago, I was hooked!

It's now possible to listen to radio stations in "real time" from just about anywhere in the world.  TV is another matter, it's not yet as widespread as streaming audio.  That's going to take some time because of the bandwidth involved and because the internet service providers (particularly in North America) have been slow at bringing "fibre to the home".

With audio and video streams, some material is "live" in "real time", while other stuff is "archived" (files on a web server that you can play on your own time).

What do you need to play streaming audio and video files? 

First of all not all audio/video streams use the same format.   So, you'll need "player" software that will handle all of the formats.   There isn't yet one software application that will do "everything".   It's mainly the use of proprietary audio and video formats instead of free and open source formats that's holding us back.

If you are on a "Window$" computer, here are the programmes you'll need:

Windows Media Player - Don't worry, you've already got it!   Micro$oft has built it into the Window$ operating system and as a result is before the courts in the EU for monopolistic practices.   Your version might need updating (and of course security patches) and for certain formats you might need to install some extra "codecs".

Real Player -  This is the programme that "made" streaming audio.   When you download and install, you'll be prompted to download a "paid for" version with all kinds of extra "features" you don't really need.  Just avoid them.

It does have a tendency to "phone home" on the Windows version which can be somewhat irritating at times.

Apple Quicktime -  This is Apple 's streaming audio player.

Winamp - Probably the best mp3 player software available for Window$ computers in terms of organizing your playlists etc.   There's just one drawback (and this is really dumb!).   It will only work from an account with "administrative" privileges on a Windows 2000/Windows XP machine.

Winamp is also one of the few "commercial" media players for Window$ that supports the open source "ogg vorbis" file format "out of the box".

Most commercial media players once installed will "phone home to Mama" and bombard you with advertising and/or are tied in with paid music download services.  Just learn to ignore the ads!  Also, be prepared to update them from time to time as they all use proprietary formats that are subject to change...and of course  the seemingly never-ending security problems.

If you don't like all of the advertising crud (I don't blame you!), bloatware and "phoning home to Mama" there is an alternative.   You can use the (now free and open source) programmes "Real Alternative" and "Quicktime Alternative".   Both programmes give you the option of an alternative version of Window$ Media Player.

The trade-off is that there are occasionally some audio formats that Real Alternative and Quicktime Alternative won't handle.

VLC Media Player - VLC Media Player is a free and open source (and cross-platform) programme that will handle many audio and video formats.   For the latest list of what's supported you can look here.  Currently VLC Media Player won't handle Real Video formats and some of the newer Windows Media Video formats.

One other thing about VLC, it's not only a "player" but you can also use it to setup a streaming audio/video server!

Free Codecs.com - From time to time you might run into an audio or video format that your media player can't seem to play.   That's usually because your computer is missing a particular audio or video "codec".  If that's the case, then  you'll  more than likely find the missing codec at this site.

Democracy Player - A free, open source and cross-platform video player for Windows, MacOSX and Linux from the "Participatory Culture Foundation" based on code from VLC Media Player.   "Democracy Player" is more than just a video player.    You can also use it for downloading video from sites like Google Video and Youtube.com, it has a built-in bittorrent client, is useful for use with video podcasts and RSS feeds and much much more!


TuxIf you are using Linux, there are a number of streaming media players available for you!

Often, media players are included in the distro and you don't have to install anything.

However, on many Linux distros support for "proprietary" codecs is not always included (for legal and ethical reasons). 
For instance the "mp3" file format is proprietary and so not all Linux distros will support it "out of the box".

This usually isn't that much of a technical problem though.   In most cases you can install the proprietary codecs (including Window$ codecs) through your distro's package management system ("Yum" on Fedora Core, "Yast" on Suse, "urpmi" on Mandriva and "apt-get",  "Synaptic", or "Adept" on Debian-based distros).

You do need to be aware that installing proprietary codecs on GNU/Linux machines may break the law depending on where in the world you live.   This is particularly a problem in the USA due to silly laws like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

Real Player has made a version of its player available for Linux for many years.  There's also an "open source" version of Real Player called the "Helix Media Player".   Folks who complain of how bloated and ad-laden Real Player is on Windows will be glad to know that the Linux version of Real Player doesn't have all of this "junk".

Windows Media Player is not available for Linux and probably never will be.  Neither is Quicktime.  However there are a number of open source media players that will work most of the time with the proper codecs installed.  You may have problems listening to audio or watching video that has been "embedded" into the webpage.   Most of the time however it's simply a matter of copying and pasting the URL of the audio or video source into your media player.

If you can't find the URL, sometimes you can do a "view source" on the web page and find it.

Since VLC Media Player is "open source" it's also available for Linux.    So is "Democracy Player".

Two other major media players for Linux are "Xine" and "MPlayer".   Given that these two programes are also "open source", they form the engine for a number of other open source media players such as "Kaffeine" and "Totem" (based on Xine) and "KMPlayer" (based on MPlayer).

Amarok -  "Amarok" is a little difficult to describe to Windows users, because there's nothing in the "Windows world" that's really like it.   Amarok is an amazing programme that allows you to play CD's, mp3 and ogg vorbis audio files, streaming media and organizes everything into playlists.   You'll find a list of its features here.   Amarok is part of the "KDE" Linux desktop so is normally installed with most KDE-based Linux distros when you install the operating system.    If it isn't, then you can install it using whatever package management system your distro uses.

Finally, there's "XMMS Media Player".  Those who use Winamp on Windows will find XMMS Media Player to be quite similar in look and feel.

PLAYING STREAMS ON A MAC

Unfortunately, I've never owned a Mac.  (Could never afford one!).   So other than the stuff I've mentioned above that works on a Mac, I can't tell you anything more.   If you've got some suggestions, drop me a note!

FLASHPLAYER

Some streaming media sites use the embedded "Flashplayer" from Adobe Macromedia.  As a proprietary format, "Flash" is not officially supported by most Linux distributions "out of the box" which means that you'll have to install it separately.   Installation of Flashplayer on Linux can be a little on the "geeky" side, but it's not too hard.    If you use  Ubuntu, Kubuntu or Xubuntu you can use either "Automatix" or "Easy Ubuntu" to install Flashplayer support.   Automatix also works on a few other Debian-based distros.

You can get the Linux version of the just released Flashplayer 9 from here .

There's also a free and opensource flashplayer project in the works called "Gnu Gnash".  Right now it will support most Flash files up to Version 7 which means it'll work on sites like Youtube.com.

If nothing else, the existence of the Gnu Gnash project seemed to get Adobe to speed up development of Flashplayer 9 for Linux.   Previously Adobe had only released Flashplayer 7 for Linux and never bothered issuing Flashplayer 8.   That's one of the problems with proprietary formats!

GETTING THE MMS PROTOCOL TO WORK IN NON-MICROSOFT WEB BROWSERS

Some websites not only stream with Windows Media Player, but stream using the proprietary "MMS" (Microsoft Media Services) protocol instead of the industry standard "http".    If you use a non-Microsoft web browser, you'll get a message that says something like "MMS is not a registered protocol" whenever you try to launch an MMS audio stream.

What you need to do is to enable MMS in your non-Microsoft browser and then tell your web browser what programme to launch whenever it comes across a stream that uses the MMS protocol.

Here's an article that appears on the website of the Central Indiana Linux Users Group that describes how to get MMS streams working in Firefox.    The process will be pretty much the same with any other non-M$ web browser.    If you are using Windows you'll have to point to the ".exe" file of your media player.

You might also run across the "RTSP" (Real Time Streaming Protocol) used on some Real Player streams.    The process for getting it working is the same as for MMS (except substitute RTSP for the mms protocol).

OGG VORBIS

As I mentioned above, the popular "mp3" audio format is proprietary.   Is there an "open source" audio format similar to mp3?   Of course!   There's the "ogg vorbis" format!   Media players that come with Linux distros will indeed support the ogg vorbis format "out of the box" with no need to install anything else.

Many users report that the ogg vorbis audio format sounds a whole lot better than the mp3 format.

You can listen to a 24 kbps. ogg vorbis stream of CBC Radio One (Toronto) here and CBC Radio Two here.   Radio Canada's Espace Musique service can be heard in ogg vorbis here.   If you like the idea of being able to hear CBC and Radio Canada using a free and open source audio codec please let them know!

If you "rip" your CD music to mp3, you can also rip your music to the ogg vorbis format.  One very popular open source tool for doing this is "Audacity".  Many of the models of portable "mp3 players" made by "iRiver" and Samsung support the ogg vorbis audio format.   As well, many of the Chinese made "no-name" portable players will also support ogg vorbis, even though they may not say so on the package.

HACK YOUR iPOD!

Want to get your iPod to support the Ogg Vorbis format?    You can try "Rockbox".    Rockbox is open source firmware for the Apple iPod along with many other portable media players.    It not only allows your iPod to play  Ogg Vorbis files, but FLAC (free lossless audio codec) and many other types of media.   It also allows you to customize many of the features in your portable media player so that you don't necessarily have to hit several different button combinations to perform a task.   Because it's free and open source, new features are being added all the time by the Rockbox community!