Updated 2:00 P.M. PT
The Netscape LiveMedia architecture, unveiled last week and to be deployed later this year, will add the ability to deliver real-time, streaming audio and video files to Netscape's client and server product line. It also will eventually make it possible to have two-way communications--both audio and video--from within the browser.
Indeed, Andreessen sees the day when Navigator will have a button with a telephone icon on it that will let users instantly place calls not only to other Internet users, but to users of the public telephone network as well.
"How to bridge into the plain old telephone system is interesting. It should be possible to bridge the Internet to the POPs (points of presence) of interexchange carriers and offer free long-distance telephony," said Andreessen, pointing to an ongoing Net project called FreeWorld Dial-Up (http://www.pulver.com/fwd/) that is trying to do just that.
The issues that need to be solved to make this vision a reality include the creation of directory services, better user interfaces and new, compelling multiperson environments, Andreessen said.
Andreessen admits that he has "been a skeptic for quite a while" about the Net's ability to deliver real-time media, but says "I think its on its way now." He says the new telecom de-regulation bill, passed the same day that Netscape unveiled its new strategy, could put Internet service providers into the telephony business. All it takes is some more modems, Andreessen said, to make the ISP networks two-way.
Andreessen is also closely tracking the progress of @Home, which is promising to deliver high-speed cable modem-based services beginning this spring in Sunnyvale, Calif. Cable modems could make streaming video over the Net a much better experience, he said.
With audio and video contending for precious Internet bandwidth, a new model of usage-based Net pricing will have to emerge, with bandwidth hogs paying a premium, Andreessen said. "At the end of the day, it is an economic question. Either it will be worth the additional money (for end users) or it won't. Prices will be adjusted to reflect that reality."
Open technology has become Netscape's calling card, and Andreessen says his company's approach to real-time media is "standards, standards, standards." The company will support the emerging Internet standard Real Time Protocol (RTP) for delivering real-time streams over the Internet, and existing audio and video standards such as MPEG (video), GSM (voice telephony) and H.261 (video conferencing).
To fuel its efforts, Netscape acquired InSoft Inc, a maker of TCP/IP based audio and video conferencing technology, and cut a licensing deal with VoxWare Inc., which has unveiled speech compression technology for the Internet.
InSoft has been building a platform for IP-based audio and video, though most of its efforts has been on high-speed local area network (LAN) solutions. However, InSoft has also been working on low-bit-rate solutions, including CoolTalk (audio) and CoolView (video) that will be able to work over the public Internet over low-speed connections, Andreessen said.
"We think we'll be able to do low bit rate audio and video within Navigator that's as good as anything else that's out there," Andreessen said.
Andreessen said that company's offering proprietary systems delivering "telephone" calls over the Internet have already run into problems because their technologies cannot talk to one another. Market leader VocalTec Inc. and challengers such as Quarterdeck's WebPhone and Camelot's DigiPhone are among the players in this market.
"That's an undesirable approach--to have huge proprietary showdowns. We'll support a standards-based solution and give other companies as many opportunities as we can to build on top of it," Andreessen said.
Netscape will offer open real-time APIs that will talk to its browser and servers. In addition, LiveMedia will be built in modular fashion that lets other vendors plug-in different pieces, such as better quality codecs, he said.
In keeping with Netscape's emerging Intranet focus, Andreessen said LiveMedia will also offer companies a way to cut their internal voice and video costs. In addition, he stressed that audio and video are not limited to the Web. Compression makes it possible to make real-time media attachments to e-mail and news group postings as well.
In tomorrow's IA Digital, we'll visit with some of today's real-time media vendors to measure their reaction to Netscape's grand plans.