I recently got onto the Internet through a local service provider, and they installed the World Wide Web browsing software on my computer. But sometimes when Iím online and it says to click and hear a sound, I get a message saying I need a plug-in. What does that mean? Canít the software they gave me play Internet sounds?

As you can read in almost any paper any day, the Internet is evolving very rapidly Ė so rapidly, in fact, that itís hard for browser software manufacturers to keep up with all the latest innovations, especially in the area of multimedia elements such as sound, video, animation, and 3D. By the time they build into their browsers the ability to decode or play back certain multimedia formats, the format developers come up with either a major upgrade or improvement, or an entirely different delivery scheme altogether. The only way to stay current with the fast pace of Web-based content is to enlist the aid of modular playback software that is automatically started by your browser when it senses a corresponding type of data coming over the line. This is the idea behind plug-ins.

Plug-ins are usually provided by the same company that makes the multimedia element youíre trying to see or hear. They can be downloaded, or copied directly to your computer over the Internet, from the companyís web site, usually for free. It used to be somewhat of a hassle to get these plug-ins and your browser, the most common of which are Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, to hook up together. But the task has been simplified a great deal so that now itís almost a no-brainer. In fact, in the case of Netscape Navigator 3.0, if you try to access some multimedia content that Navigator canít handle by itself, you are automatically brought to a screen with a link that you click on to download the needed plug-in. Because each piece of multimedia content transmits unique coded information about its data type, browsers can reference an internal database in which all current plug-ins and their data codes are registered to tell if the necessary plug-in is installed in your system. If it isnít found, the information is used to automatically bring you to the plug-in download page.

You click on the proper download link and the plug-in, which has been compressed to save space and transfer time, is copied over the phone line to the hard drive in your computer. You then find the new file in the Windows Explorer or File Manager, depending on which version of Windows youíre running (or in the Finder if youíre using a Macintosh) and double-click on it. The file decompresses itself, and depending on the installation program, either asks you where your browser is or finds it itself. In either case, your browserís internal database is automatically updated to include the new plug-in and its associated data code. From then on, any time you encounter that type of multimedia content on the Web, you can click on it and experience it without any further complaints from your browser.

Since I last checked there are 102 plug-ins available for Netscape Navigator in the areas of 3D and Animation, Business and Utilities, Image Viewers, and Presentations. In addition to these categories, plug-ins can be further classified by whether they use streaming technology or not. Since multimedia files are frequently quite large, they usually must first be transferred to your hard drive before they can start playing, resulting in delays that can sometimes be very long -- as long as 35 or 40 minutes or longer in the case of a three-minute high-quality stereo music file, depending on the speed of your modem. Streaming technology allows your plug-in to begin playing the multimedia content immediately and continuously as it "streams" from the Internet to your computer. The quality of streaming multimedia is generally not quite as good as files that are played directly from your hard drive, but the time savings is usually worth it, and the quality is improving rapidly.

There are three plug-ins any serious web surfer must have. The first is RealAudio 3.0 from Progressive Networks. This is a streaming sound player that has recently been upgraded, resulting in sound almost as good as the download-first kind. Many leading record labels now provide RealAudio music samples of their artists, and numerous radio stations, Internet broadcasters, and networks such as ABC and NPR provide news and information in RealAudio format. Live music "webcasts" of concerts are also becoming popular. The RealAudio 3.0 plug-in can be found at http://www.realaudio.com.

The second must-have plug-in is Shockwave from Macromedia, which not only plays music but also interactive animation. In fact, this technology has become so popular that it will be built into the next version of Netscape Navigator, so that a separate plug-in will no longer be required. The list of "shocked" websites reads like a Whoís Who of major corporations desiring a cutting-edge multimedia web presence. Shockwave content must be played from your hard drive, however, so to minimize transfer time there is a practical limit to the size of the multimedia files. Look for Shockwave at http://www.macromedia.com.

The third plug-in is not for multimedia content, but for document presentation and navigation. Adobe Acrobat allows you to view documents just as they would look in print, complete with graphics, fancy typefaces, and creative layouts that ordinary web pages donít permit. You can find Acrobat at http://www.adobe.com.

Some other popular plug-ins include VDOLive for video and Live3D (which comes with Netscape Navigator 3.0) for 3D. These and other plug-ins can be found at the Netscape Navigator Component Page. Once you have some experience with plug-ins and the media types they provide, youíll probably wind up with a dozen or more to enhance your web surfing with rapidly-evolving multimedia entertainment.

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