Vol. 2. No. 1 INT March 1996
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On the Internet

The Next Generation and
Plugs for the Web

Jim Duber

Cañada College, UC Berkeley


Netscape 2.0 and its plug-ins are the big news on the Net these days. The second generation of this popular Web browser brings exciting new capabilities to Web pages via third-party software add-ons called plug-ins. Promising more than just flash (though not to suggest there won't be a lot more of that), there are plug-ins now available that allow for better playback of video, audio, and animation; for the exploration of 3-D spaces; and for greater degrees of interactivity than ever before in a Web page.

With a TCP/IP connection to the Internet and Netscape Navigator 2.0 on your drive, all you need to do is download a plug-in or two, and then try them out for yourself. As of February 1996, there was a total of 17 available plug-ins-- mostly beta (i.e., non-final, trial) versions, and mostly for Windows 3.1 and '95. All indications are for support of other platforms in the very near future.

Three plug-ins with obvious relevance to students and teachers of ESL are:

  1. RealAudio By Progressive Networks.
    RealAudio provides highly compressed, streamed audio over Internet connections of 14.4Kbps or faster. The first generation player offered impressive results in terms of both access rates and content (NPR, ABC, and PBS are a few of the many noteworthy sites), though the sound quality was often compared to that of a distant AM radio station. The good news is that 2.0 is supposed to sound better, and there is already a large number of Websites that offer a wide variety of RealAudio 2.0 sound files. Best of all, they start playing almost immediately after you click on them. (RealAudio Version 2.0 is now available for Windows '95, 3.1, NT, Mac 7.x, and Unix.)
  2. ToolVox By Voxware.
    Another audio technology for the Web, the ToolVox plug-in allows the immediate playback of sound files, much like RealAudio. One big difference is that ToolVox files don't require a special server--the advantage there is that developers don't need to buy an expensive server to add this sound format to their web pages. Now, anyone can do it. VoxWare offers 53:1 compression ratios, which is according to their press releases "more than three times smaller than first-generation real-time Internet voice products." What's more, they offer a free sound encoder too. (VoxWare is now available for Windows '95 and 3.1. A Mac version coming soon.)
  3. Shockw ave For Director By Macromedia.
    The Shockwave plug-in lets users interact with multimedia presentations created in Macromedia Director, one of today's top multimedia authoring tools. Like never before, Shockwave brings rich animation and sound, and enhanced levels of interactivity to a Web page. (Of course, since I also program in Director, I may have a slight bias.) In any case, after you downlo ad the plug-in, I invite you to see a few of my sample Shockwave movies. And, when you're ready for more, Alan Levine maintains an index of over 270 "shocked" sites--itself a Shockwave movie--at the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction. (Shockwave is now available for Windows '95 and 3.1, with a Mac version imminent.)

These three add-ons alone--not to mention Netscape's new built-in JavaScript capabilities and the other 14 plug-ins currently available--are going to make the Web look and sound better, and deliver more intelligent levels of interactivity. A next generation of web-based language learning exercises and activities, a next generation of multimedia Moo's, and the holodeck can't be too far behind.

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