Paying for media players and an increasingly clogged Internet are some of the problems dogging the new technology

Ever have one of those days when you wish the Internet would just…go away? That’s the kind of week this writer has had diddling around in the brave, though insanely annoying, new world of streaming video on the Web.

What’s streaming video? you ask as you wait for the veins in my head to stop visibly throbbing. Good question. It used to be that when you wanted to experience sound and vision via the Internet, you had to download files. Sound files took some minutes to come down the pipe; video files seemingly took days — and there was nothing you could do before they completely loaded in except play Tetris until your eyes glazed over.

RealAudio, from Progressive Networks (, changed all that in late 1995. Once you downloaded and installed the playback software and clicked on a sound file, you would start to hear audio seconds later, as the rest of the file was still streaming in. Recently, with the advent of Progressive Networks’ RealPlayer, streaming video has become a reality — and similar browser widgets from VDOLive (, Vivo (, and VXtreme ( prove that a lot of people think there’s money to be made in them thar bits.

At least someday. Right now few would dare think of charging users to watch a glitchy, stuttering image the size of a Triscuit on their computer screens. But if the players from Vivo, VXtreme, VDOLive, and a stripped-down version of RealPlayer are free for the download, there’s one exception: RealPlayer Plus costs $29.99. Ostensibly, you’re paying for the difference. Unlike the competition, RealPlayer Plus essentially serves as a Web tuner, enabling the user to either randomly scan or preselect audio and video from around the Net — including network feeds and a multiplicity of radio stations.

The operating analogy here might be the early days of ham radio, but even that nascent medium never left you with the rising-temperature, ready-to-throw-the-fershlugginer-machine-out-the-window sense of frustration. See, even if digital technology continues to improve — and it will — the real villain is the increasingly clogged Internet pathways themselves, and they’ll only get worse. Take, for instance, RealPlayer’s two showcase sites. Maybe if I logged on at 4 a.m. I could at least be able to watch the three shorts directed by Spike Lee ( lee/theater/lobby.html) without the connection breaking down. And while the hugely ambitious Liner Notes (http://www.liner from esteemed producer Don Was pledges record-biz razzle-dazzle, the slick Web interface took so long to appear that I never made it to the video section.

Streaming video isn’t without promise. A recent live visit to the set of Kevin Costner’s The Postman, using VXtreme’s Web Theater, went off without a hitch, and I’ve had success watching David Bowie and Spice Girls videos at the Virgin Records site using the RealPlayer (though I’m not really surprised that I can’t get through to the Farsi news feeds from Iran Sima TV, and CNN’s VXtreme hookup hasn’t worked for me yet).