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February 12, 1996

DIGITAL COMMERCE/By DENISE CARUSO

Some new tools should make it far easier to put multimedia displays on the Web.

S ophisticated tools for multimedia publishing on the World Wide Web are racing to market.

Sybase Inc., a leader in data base software, will distribute early versions of its new multimedia tools via the Internet starting Feb. 20. And there are similar products on the way from companies that include start-ups like Net Objects Inc. and mFactory Inc., as well as Steve Jobs's tenacious Next Inc.

Though these software tools will range wildly in price, they all perform the same basic functions. Common to all of them is their reliance on what is called object technology -- a Lego-like approach to building software that slashes the amount of time and expertise needed to create a Web site featuring sound, animation and text.

The need for these tools is all too apparent. Most World Wide Web sites are so ugly and dull, they actually make multimedia CD-ROM's look good. CD-ROM disks may be slow, and the content may be of questionable value. But at least most CD-ROM's are colorful, noisy and somewhat animated; most Web sites aren't.

It's not the Web's fault. HTML, the original software technology used to create Web pages, was designed to display text and link pages -- period. To make it interactive, artists and entrepreneurs figured out clever ways to enable Web pages to display rudimentary animations and sound.

It looked like the Web would achieve a new level of sophistication last year when Sun Microsystems Inc. released an early version of Java, a programming language that many believe may become the core of multimedia applications on the Web. The catch is that only experienced programmers can use Java. And hiring programmers is a colossal expense and nuisance for companies and artists with multimedia Web visions, who, so far, have been able to use HTML themselves.

So this new generation of object-based tools is trying to keep the Web a medium where anyone can be an author or an artist without needing to be a programmer, too.

That's one of the goals of Sybase (http://www.powersoft.com). A few years ago, Sybase, based in Mountain View, Calif., bought a small company called Gain Technology that specialized in software tools to build multimedia applications that could run over networks.

Sybase's initial target for Gain's software was the interactive television market, but it quickly shifted its aim to the Web after noting the Internet's skyrocketing popularity. The resulting Sybase products are tools for building multimedia Web sites.

One is called Media Splash. The other, called Media Play, will be designed to operate with the latest version of the Netscape Communications Corporation's Web browser software and enable users to interact with Media Splash sites.

With not much more effort or technical knowledge than it takes to create a computerized slide presentation, Media Splash users can create sophisticated Web sites using multiple media and various formats. Authors, using simply point-and-click commands, can produce several different types of animation as well as scores of other effects.

The simplicity of Media Splash's design was a deliberate attempt to continue the ease-of-use tradition that began with the Web's HTML technology. "HTML took off because physicists and humanities people could use it," said Raymond Drewry, a director of software architecture in Sybase's new-media group. Those who want to program custom bits into their Web sites using Java or Media Splash will be able to, Mr. Drewry said, but "you will be able to do good stuff just by being human."

Media Splash will be priced for humans as well: Sybase is looking to sell the product for anywhere from $40 to $250.

Low cost and ease of use are two of Media Splash's most powerful characteristics. But Sybase also appears to have solved the critical technical problem of connecting Web sites to information already residing in data bases -- a vital feature for catalogue companies and other information and service providers who want to link their Web pages to their back-office computer systems to deliver customized services. The product that makes this possible, called WebSQL, is also available free for user testing from the Sybase Web site.

Other companies will be right on Sybase's heels with product offerings similar to Media Splash.

Mr. Jobs's Redwood City, Calif.-based Next Inc., (http://www.next.com), for example, is preparing a line of tools called Web Objects. These will range in price from free (for beginning users) to $24,999 for a version that allows developers to link corporate data bases to the Internet.

mFactory (http://www.mfactory.com), a Burlingame, Calif., company that already sells a $5,000 object-based multimedia authoring tool called mTropolis, said that beginning in April it would distribute a test version of its webTropolis, which it eventually plans to sell for $800 to $1,100.

A Web authoring and publishing system from NetObjects (http://www.netobjects.com), of Redwood City, Calif., is still in development, with no price or final shipment date set for its system.

What does all this portend for that clunky old multimedia medium, the CD-ROM? It has been long predicted that CD-ROM's -- limited both by their storage capacity and the fact that they cannot be distributed on line -- would fade away once the Internet was truly ready for multimedia.

And if new tools like Media Splash and the others do indeed transform the Internet's World Wide Web into a real medium for multimedia publishing, they could gut the market for CD-ROM-based games, education and entertainment titles.

The problem for Web publishers continues to be that potential customers balk at actually spending money for what they use on the Web. So far, at least a few successful CD-ROM developers are still able to get people to part with $30 or so for titles on disk.

So the larger question, the one that plagues the entire on-line industry, continues to be this: Will Web operators have the cash flow to keep their beautiful new multimedia sites in business once they've snapped them together?


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