HotMedia: Ready for Hot Times?

About a year and a half ago, I was invited to attend a party at a trendy downtown New York club to celebrate the roll-out of a new Internet technology. That in itself was unremarkable. It was the identity of the sponsors that threw me: IBM.

IBM sponsoring a party below 14th street? (For those of you from out of town, 14th street in Manhattan is akin to the Mason-Dixon line, with the terminally hip living below, and the mainstream suits above. There are folks who have lived here for years without crossing the boundary. IBM is definitely an “above 14th street” kind of company.)

The product was called IBM’s HotMedia (sort of like “Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula”), and it represented IBM’s foray into the rich media Internet space. I didn’t really hear that much about HotMedia after the initial buzz, so I thought it was time to check in with the Big Blueness to see what’s up.

I spoke with Jai Menon, IBM’s director of web content management, who gave me the lowdown and confirmed my suspicions that IBM has been keeping HotMedia low-profile since its initial release. The enviable position of a deep pockets company like IBM is that it can spend the time to get it right before launching a full-out assault with a new technology, but Jai promised that the heat surrounding HotMedia was going to pick up considerably over the next six months. So the question remains: Is HotMedia ready for hot times? The answer is… well, maybe it just needs to bake a little bit longer.

Developed at a time when the costs associated with developing rich media content were through the roof, HotMedia was IBM’s response to that problem. Essentially, HotMedia is a container for various types of rich media file formats, all of which work together, and a free toolset that makes it easy to develop HotMedia content.

The rich media functions that can be incorporated into a .mvr file (or multimedia vehicle repository file a name only a mother like IBM could love) include streaming audio, hyperlinking functionality across media types, IPIX panorama technology, video, and Jpeg and GIF formats for the creation of animated movies. The toolset allows developers to import standard rich media elements, which it then compresses and outputs as a .mvr file that can be incorporated into any web site.

Like The Thinking Media, IBM’s format operates on just-in-time principles, downloading the rich media players it needs only when, and if, it needs to, based on the contents of the file. For instance, if HotMedia content uses streaming audio, a 15k Java-based audio player is downloaded to the customer’s machine, but only when it is needed. Each player is between 12 and 15k each, so the download times are theoretically short. The various players are then cached, which decreases download time even more the next time the content is displayed.

IBM is currently positioning HotMedia as an e-commerce, web-content tool as opposed to an advertising banner tool (which is the path The Thinking Media took).

An example of what HotMedia can do is found at the site. Here, a panoramic view of Vera’s Retreat in the Glen, a store that specializes in skin care products, is combined with hyperlinks that link to animated displays of merchandise found in the store. Other examples of HotMedia technology can be found in the case study section of the HotMedia site.

HotMedia tools are bundled with Macromedia products like Director and Dreamweaver, although it currently doesn’t support Macromedia file formats like Flash and Shockwave. In addition, the tools can be downloaded from the site so that you can start to create your own HotMedia files to try out.

HotMedia definitely meets a need out in the marketplace: a want of good tools making it easy to create rich media content. As Owen Davis of The Thinking Media once pointed out, the lack of good tools is one of the biggest threats facing the rich media community.

HotMedia is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately the files seem a bit sluggish to me. I examined these demos on a fast T1 connection, and still they took way too long to download and start to play. But as Jai Menon said, IBM wants to do it right. My suggestion is to keep tweaking it a little longer, optimize those files a bit more for speed, then come out with guns ablazing.

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