A recent IntelliQuest poll suggested that at least one in every four American adults have by this point ventured onto the Internet. In fact, Web access has now even surpassed electronic mail as the number one reason for people accessing the Internet. This year alone, another 12 million people are expected to enter the on-line community. In conjunction with the explosive growth of the Web, which has almost doubled the rate of growth of the Internet as a whole, one concept in particular has been receiving a great deal of attention: webcasting. Driven by emerging technologies, the hype surrounding webcasting has brought dozens of major corporations onto the scene. Computer hardware manufacturers such as Apple, IBM, Intel, and Sun Microsystems are pouring money into webcasting efforts as a way to show off their technology. Likewise, corporations such as CNN Interactive and C-NET have become major players in the webcasting world. During the 1996 Summer Olympics, there were no less than six webcasting efforts taking place in the Atlanta area. It is ironic that despite all of this mobilization, there is as of yet still no adequate definition for webcasting.
As is common with emerging technologies, webcasting is passing through a hype-phase during which there is plenty of baseless enthusiasm and lots of money being thrown around, but no one really knows what they are doing. All it takes to secure resources is to mention the word 'webcasting' -- in many circles that is enough to guarantee funding since many administrators and managers are already sold on the hype. As a result of this lack of enforced accountability, the webcasting community is essentially in chaos. There is no single definition or practice. Opinions abound as to what it is and what it should be, and many are heading off in diametrically opposed directions, all under the same name -- webcasting.
This may not sound like a pretty picture, but it is, in fact, a wonderful thing to see. Thanks to all of the hype and chaos and confusion, there is room to experiment. People can go out and apply their varied definitions of webcasting without having to worry so much about whether they will continue to be funded, or if they will be able to turn a profit in the first sixty days. While it is true that many corporations and individuals will get burned in this endeavor, it is nonetheless necessary for webcasting to exist at all. As is common with new technological practices, webcasting is currently a concept of practice, not purpose. This time of chaos is precisely the time that individuals will be able to apply the practice to a wide range of situations, determining where webcasting will work, and for that matter, what webcasting is.
Webcasting has, in fact, been in practice in one form or another for approximately the past two years. Some of the earliest webcasts were performed by Apple Computer as part of their Interactive Marketing campaign. One specific webcast that made the national news early on was the "24 Hours in Cyberspace" endeavor, in which writers and photographers around the globe collected stories and photos and placed them on the Web over a 24 hour period. Webcasting is perhaps not as new as it may have first appeared. In fact, judging from the cycles of other emerging technologies (the Web itself, Web browsers, Java, etc.), webcasting is due to be emerging from its protective shell inside the hype. People will soon begin to ask the tough questions like: "Why webcast?" and "Will it make money?" In order to be able to answer these questions, it is time that we begin to take a close look at the practice of webcasting to determine what has worked and what has not, as well as simply what it is or should be.
In this paper, I will begin to take such a look, examining what appear to be the three most dominant existing practices of webcasting: webcasting as streaming any live media, webcasting as 'push' technologies, and webcasting as event reproduction. To do this, I will present a set of assessment criteria that are, in my opinion, particularly useful and important in determining the nature of webcasting. For comparison, these same criteria will be applied to traditional broadcasting practices, from which 'webcasting' derives its name. In doing so, I hope to illuminate a particular concern I have with respect to the potential future of webcasting, that if webcasting does not distinguish itself significantly from existing mass media forms, it will not survive.
Last modified 5/21/97.