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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

Swimming with the Fishes: What's good for tournament fishing may be good for the Department of Defense.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (36)
By Robert X. Cringely

The way change happens varies over time as technologies and markets mature. This column is about two examples of new directions of change for the Internet. First there is, a fishing web site that teaches us (and the Pentagon too) new lessons about niche markets and the future of television. Then there is Adobe's upcoming Flash 9 and its competition with Java.

There are two key differences between watching television over the Internet and watching Nightline in your bedroom: 1) Nightline usually looks a lot better than Internet TV because of higher production values and greater available bandwidth, and; 2) an Internet TV show can serve a truly global audience while Nightline is limited to the audience of ABC affiliates in the U.S. These two factors combine to define the opportunity for Internet TV, which generally comes down to content for thinly dispersed but rabidly enthusiastic audiences who won't care if the picture is a little shaky or the jokes are bad.

The example of this effect that I always like to use is the Nazi Memorabilia Channel, which would have a hard time finding carriage on any U.S. cable system because the number of potential viewers is so small. But if the viewers could be drawn from a global Internet population that includes such ex-Nazi hotspots as Paraguay and Brazil, maybe the channel would have a better chance.

Which bring us to our latest poster child for Internet TV -- is the brainchild of ESPN2 alumnus Capt. Adam Paul (he's captain of a fishing boat, hence the title -- no saluting required but you buy the first round) and is intended to take all those cable TV bass fishing shows to a whole new level. Paul, 28, who seems to have devoted his life to offshore fishing, wanted to find a way to let the 30 million fishermen and women in the U.S. and their untold millions of counterparts overseas continue to experience their sport whenever they were in front of a computer screen. Gillznfinz is a saltwater-logged combination of MySpace and YouTube where for $15.95 per year normal people without webbed feet (yes, Capt. Paul's feet ARE webbed, I am not making this up) can follow along on the video and text adventures of a growing number of professional offshore fishermen. The site covers travel, fishing, local entertainment, and where to get bail money if needed.

"It's half the price of most fishing magazines yet the content is changing 24/7," said Capt. Paul at the site's July launch. From a business standpoint, the combination of user-generated content (blogs, pictures, video, e-mail) plus professional content from contributors, who are mainly other captains trolling for new fishing customers, makes a lot of sense.

But what sets apart from other fishing sites is its use of technology. The site relies heavily on video and will shortly launch its first live fishing shows linked by satellite from almost anywhere in the world. "We'll cover tournament fishing with a live satellite uplink from one boat and wireless cameras on other boats in the fleet sailing up to a mile from the uplink."

Not even Nightline can do that.

Actually, NOBODY can do that, which is what makes Gillznfinz interesting to, of all outfits, the U.S. Department of Defense.

What Gillznfinz has done with its fishing tournament coverage is to create a unique picture of almost everything that is happening in a fishing fleet covering about three square miles, making nearly all events and participants individually addressable through a combination of video, audio, and text messaging. Everyone in the tournament is addressable from outside the tournament, as are up to dozens of video cameras. As a viewer pretending to work at your PC on the 14th floor of some office building, you can watch (and communicate with) your favorite fisherman or figure out from the chat traffic where the real action is, then beam over there to see some other fisherman land that big fish.

If this sounds to you like watching paint dry, then Gillznfinz might not be for you, except, of course, for the beer and vodka ads. But to some fishermen who work for the DoD, that tournament looks a lot like a battle, those captains and fishermen like officers and enlisted men, and the chance to jump interactively into such action is a first for the Pentagon.

That is not to say Iraq and Afghanistan aren't already appearing on a screen near you. The ability of the U.S. theater command to be based in Florida, rather than closer to the battlefield, has been attributable to video for some time. Real-time battlefield video presently makes its way to Florida by satellite using proprietary video compression technology from a Scottish company called Essential Viewing. Having earlier tried to slug it out with better-backed codecs like QuickTime and Windows Media in the commercial video market, Essential Viewing stumbled upon the defense market and now thrives in that world of $900 hammers. The real-time capability of its codec, originally developed at the University of Strathclyde, is paramount in an application where command and control are dependent on knowing what's happening on the battlefield RIGHT NOW.

Capt. Paul, fighting that big striper back in some million dollar bass tournament, doesn't have Essential Viewing technology with its highly efficient low-bandwidth connections, but he has something better -- the bidirectional integration of text and audio from a virtually unlimited number of sources like e-mail and chat along with a lot more cameras. Having more data sources means more information from the tournament (or battle) and viewers who can get much quicker to where the action is.

A generation ago this sort of application would originate on the battlefield then slowly make its way into consumer applications. But today the consumer electronics market is so large and the rate of product development so fast that it isn't surprising at all to see consumer technology leading the military.

Another example of commercial competition leading to really significant advances in technology can be seen in the next versions of both Java and Flash. As I have written before, Java and even Microsoft's .NET suffer in comparison to Flash, which is more widely deployed than either development environment and features smaller programs with higher performance. Java and .NET, too, have suffered from the popularity of AJAX applications, which are also lighter and faster.

Sun is fighting back with a new feature called Java Kernel in Java 7. Java Kernel is a version of the Java virtual machine that is greatly reduced in size, loading only those classes that are required for an application and downloading even those only as needed, the goal being to make Java applications and, especially, applets lighter and more nimble. And who can argue with an 80 percent reduction in code size? Java Kernel is a programming triumph and about time, too.

Of course it won't make much difference in the long run, but that doesn't make Java Kernel any less impressive.

Though JVM downloads drop dramatically in size, it isn't at all clear that this will lead to significantly faster applications or even applications that at least start faster. It's waiting all that time for applets to start running that has hurt Java's adoption rate and to a certain extent .NET's, too. Flash apps are still likely to load and start quicker.

But wait, there's more! According to Adobe, the next version of Flash -- Flash 9 -- will ship with dramatically expanded codec options allowing significantly better and faster video.

There was a time not long ago when expanded Flash codec choices wouldn't have mattered. Streaming video had already failed and the market was moving to downloaded video where data rates and total file size were less immediately relevant. Then came YouTube and its commitment to Flash video. Now video streaming is again a hot idea and Flash 8's choices of the H.263 or VP6 codecs just aren't enough. Most implementations of H.263 are limited to 320-by-240, and VP6, though very efficient, just isn't a mainstream technology. In that respect it is like Essential Viewing's codec.

But the next version of Flash video will support H.264, AAC audio, most HD frame sizes, and -- here's the most important part of all -- will work with your graphics card to make it all run faster and with less CPU load.

This is a huge kick in the head to both QuickTime and Windows Media, though of course QuickTime has an important role in video production in most editing systems and in parts of the H.264 codec, itself. Windows Media and its VC-1 codec also have an enduring role in the production of professional content. But when it comes to video client software that is high performance, cross-platform, and available already in 97 percent of all computers, well Adobe wins this round easily.

By Robert X. Cringely

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (36)

Star Parties? Interesting idea. I have a different twist. Put cameras on some celebrities and each week follow them to their Hollywood parties.

Flash vs Java? Through the years there have been many interesting platforms on which to host applications. A few things usually kill them. The first is the desire to add more and more to them. Java is now huge, bloated, slow, ... The other killer is greed. As the tool gets bigger and bigger the perceived value (to the owner) gets greater until it is priced out of business. The final killer is leadership, too much or the lack of it. In Adobe's case they have years of products that have had to stay lean and mean to survive, and they have. They know they have something good in Flash and will probably manage it very well.

John | Aug 31, 2007 | 10:29AM

Adobe has products that are lean and mean? Have you ever used Photoshop? How about just the simple Acrobat reader? Flash generally does OK, but people don't read this correctly because 99% of "flash apps" are video players that the user already has cached because he has used the site (like YouTube) before.

Brad | Sep 03, 2007 | 11:33PM

"Windows Media and its VC-1 codec also have an enduring role in the production of professional content. "

What's your next guess?

VC-1 was already dying due to Apple's dominance in video editing, and with Flash jumping on the H.264 bandwagon VC-1 is beyond resuscitation.

Some Guy | Sep 05, 2007 | 6:46AM