Web add-ons are good in theory, but frequently crash users' browsers

By Matt Lake
Updated November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The slogan on the lapel button of a conventioneer at New York’s Internet World trade show last month sounded awfully harsh: ”Plug-ins suck.” After all, the mainstream press is full of breathless stories about the latest wave of websites loaded with sights and sounds, like Broadcast.com, Radio Free Internet, and The Sync. Those sites and many others use plug-ins like RealPlayer, VivoActive, Beatnik, and Shockwave to let you watch videos and animated shorts or listen to music. What’s not to like?

Plenty, once you get past the gee-whiz gizmo factor. Ever since Netscape introduced the idea of plugging new-media software players into Web browsers — way back in 1996 — people have railed against them. For instance, Gail Kaplan, a reference librarian at the Ridley Township Library in Folsom, Pa., had high hopes. ”I thought I could check out CDs before going to the store,” she says. But for her, RealPlayer didn’t live up to the promise. ”It didn’t sound clear, it jumped, and when we installed an upgrade, the browser crashed.”

Unstable software is only part of the problem. The real barrier to adopting plug-ins is convenience. Fredric Paul, editor of CNET’s Builder.com, a website for Web developers, is a vocal critic. ”Realistically, no one is going to go download a new plug-in, quit their browser, install the plug-in, relaunch the browser, and then come back to your site just to play your content — no matter how cool it is.”

In fact, the only plug-in with any notable penetration is RealNetworks’ RealPlayer — and that’s because it has been bundled with browsers from Microsoft for several years. According to research company Media Metrix, RealPlayer ranks as the No. 10 most used of all PC software (9.8 million people used it last June), but no other similar plug-in appears anywhere on its radarscope — unless you count the ubiquitous Media Player that Microsoft includes with Windows.

Another big stumbling block is that phone-line connections are still too thin and the average user’s computer and modem too slow to ingest the volume of bits necessary for plug-ins to fly. Media Metrix estimates that fewer than 25 percent of home PCs in the U.S. can even handle Web-based video. For that, you need a 28.8-Kbps Internet connection, 16MB RAM or more, and a 100-MHz processor — plus the plug-in software.

Finally, they don’t always work as advertised. Streaming video generally appears in a two-square-inch on-screen box and has a tendency to break up into weird-looking blobs or stop altogether because of network congestion. Film critic Roger Ebert described watching an old Gene Autry movie at the sagebrush-intensive film site Westerns.com (www.westerns.com) using Microsoft’s NetShow Player as ”a grim experience,” and rates the overall quality of Web-based streaming video ”between bad and not too bad.” (And he counts himself as a fan.)

Still, there’s great interest in watching video over the Web. The first day that the four-hour-plus Clinton testimony was released, a viewership of 2 million watched the RealVideo version — largely because TV news networks touted its presence on their websites. A Java-based streaming-video technology from Emblaze that doesn’t require a plug-in is also starting to take hold. And since the introduction of a new Real-Video format that only the new RealPlayer G2 can play, RealNetworks has racked up 150,000 downloads a day.