You can't be in business without being serious about the Web. Most of us are serious about it, but we're not always smart about how we use it. Consider plug-ins — add-on software programs that let you view flashy graphics, fly through virtual 3-D worlds, tune in to radio broadcasts on the Web, and create interactive presentations — all from within your browser.
Since Netscape launched its Navigator browser less than two years ago, plug-ins have become a cottage industry. As of this writing, 90 of these little applications are listed on Netscape's plug-in page. Here's the dilemma: you can waste a lot of time downloading and installing plug-ins that you don't need. But some of them are actually useful. If you ignore them altogether, your browser will fail to recognize a whole suite of proprietary audio, video, and multimedia formats.
I'll save you some trouble. After logging thousands of hours on the Net, I've narrowed all those plug-ins down to just ten — the essential browser add-ons for doing business online, plus two bleeding-edge plug-ins that you should check out as indicators of future possibilities for enhancing the Web.
Net Need: Listen to audio files and view video of the CEO reporting on the second quarter.
Power Tools: RealAudio, Net Toob, Shockwave.
To experience the Web fully, you need to be able to play all the sights and sounds that are available online. Navigator 3.0 will handle a lot of it for you — using sound files in WAV format or video clips in Quicktime format, for example — but there are several other standards out there.
According to its creators, some 7 million people have downloaded RealAudio. The RealAudio Player 2.0 plays compressed audio files, which can include speeches, music clips, and even live Internet radio broadcasts. This freeware features "streaming audio," meaning it plays audio on demand. Go to National Public Radio's site (http://www.npr.org), and RealAudio will play a Clinton campaign speech as the file is downloading. You can also pause, rewind, and fast-forward audio files.
RealAudio Sampler. Check into AudioNet (http://ww2.audionet.com). If you own Bell & Howell stock, you might want to listen in on the annual meeting; road warriors heading to Tulsa can check news and weather on radio station KTRT's online broadcasts. Many Web sites are adding video and animation clips. If you're in your office fantasizing about a ski vacation, go to Aspen Snowmass Online (http://www.aspenonline.com/aspenonline) for an in-your-face video of pristine powder skiing. Net Toob from Duplexx Software lets you automatically play the Aspen Snowmass clips and other files in popular Windows and Macintosh video formats without making you waste time downloading the file, storing it, and then finding the software to play it. Net Toob costs $14.95, but you can try it out for free before you buy.
One of the most popular plug-ins for Navigator is Macromedia's Shockwave, which provides tightly integrated animation and sound. Innumerable big-budget Web stations are using it to create animations, games with audio, TV-like effects, and moving diagrams. Move your cursor and buttons light up; a click of your mouse triggers animation and sound.
Shockwave Sampler. Download the player and then go to Xcelsoft's site (http://www.xcelsoft.com/scothome.html), where you can test-drive its home-banking system.
Geek Factor: Videos and animations are the most powerful tools for training and demonstrating products.
Weak Factor: Watching animations and videos can waste precious bandwidth if you've got a slow connection.
Coordinates: RealAudio, Progressive Networks, 800-230-5975,
(http://www.realaudio.com); Net Toob, Duplexx Software, 508-741-5500,
(http://www.duplexx.com); Shockwave, Macromedia, 800-326-2128,
Net Need: Download a graphically rich report from the R&D team; view a colleague's upcoming presentation.
Power Tools: Adobe Acrobat, ASAP WebShow, Word Viewer.
Adobe Acrobat is one of the premier systems for putting documents with page layouts on the Web. It lets you display reports full of pie charts and different fonts and graphics. You can store them in Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF) so they can be read on any system. Who uses Acrobat? Just about every government site, including the IRS.
Acrobat Sampler. Cruise to the Los Angeles Times site
(http://www.latimes.com/home/news/pdf) for online page layouts that look exactly like the paper version.
As more companies pitch their products online, they're also converting their slides to work on the Web. Heading the online seminar race is ASAP WebShow. You can use this freeware to publish your own presentations on the Web or view those posted on other people's Web sites. The plug-in enables you to flip through a presentation slide by slide, or sit back and watch the slides automatically run through a cycle.
ASAP Sampler. Hit Graphicsland (http://www.graphicsland.com/asapshow.htm), for an online presentation touting its slide imaging service.
Your primary customer puts its latest purchase specs on its Web site. The specs are in a Word document, which you download. Then you launch Word, search for the file you saved ... and find out it's the wrong file! It's not the first time this has happened. Here's a solution: get the Word Viewer plug-in from Inso Corp. You can view the document online without having to leave Navigator. It's easy to use and it's a real time saver.
Geek Factor: You don't have to get offline just to view a Word document or find out you downloaded the wrong government file.
Weak Factor: Acrobat isn't as agile as it could be; it's awkward working with some documents.
Coordinates: Adobe Acrobat, 800-272-3623, (http://www.adobe.com) WebShow, Software Publishing Corp., 800-336-8360, (http://www.spco.com); Word Viewer, Inso Corp., 617-753-6500, (http://www.inso.com).
Net Need: Build collaboration through online communication, including "chats" and live video.
Power Tools: ichat, VDOLive.
You hear it all the time: the Web is not just about content, it's about community. Of course, you can't have community without conversation. When you visit a Web page with ichat, a window opens at the bottom of your browser; you "chat" simply by typing in the window. That's right — you communicate in real time, with all the other folks who are viewing the same content.
ichat Sampler. To see how people get drawn into chat sessions, look at Treasure Quest
(http://www.treasurequest.com), an online treasure hunt with a section for chatting; or check into any Web site featuring Internet Relay Chat to get real-time technical help and tips from other online users.
Lots of offices have TVs to watch breaking news — or "Letterman" —during late nights. Now you can do it on your computer. Broadcasters such as CBS and PBS are turning to VDOnet to put their shows online. To view them live or see a segment you missed, you'll need VDOLive freeware. It compresses video images and lets you view them as "streaming video," meaning you don't have to save massive files to your hard drive.
VDOLive Sampler.Try the Cummings Video site (http://www.cummingsvideo.com). They've created an Internet movie. Check out the CBS News "Up to the Minute" site
(http://www.uttm.com) for video reports on the latest news.
Geek Factor: Building opportunities to collaborate by getting connected with live people and live broadcasts on the Net.
Weak Factor: Video quality on the Web is downright bad.
Coordinates: ichat, ichat Inc., 512-349-0339, (http://www.ichat.com); VDOLive, VDO net, 415-846-7700, (http://www.vdo.net/enhanced.html).
Net Needs: See the latest, coolest Web sites.
Power Tools: TopGun, Wirl.
All downloading and no gaming makes you a dull Netizen. To break the monotony, CD-ROM developer 7th Level created the TopGun plug-in. Its graphics, animations, and sound are more realistic than Shockwave's effects, but it isn't widely used yet.
TopGun Sampler. For fun and frivolity, check out the PythOnline site
(http://www.pythonline.com). It's ostensibly there to promote 7th Level's Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail CD, but the online games like Catch the Mad Cow Disease are even more fun.
The hottest sites on the Net are virtual worlds. They let you wander around a 3-D page and rotate objects in space to see all the angles. It's all based on the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) standard. To check out what this technology can do, try one of the better VRML plug-ins from Vream Inc. called Wirl. At Vream's home page, you'll find futuristic demos of diving dolphins; you can even fly helicopters and play a 3-D one-armed bandit.
Wirl Sampler: Visit the Mutato Muzika site (http://www.mutato.com/mutato). Mutato is Mark Mothersbaugh's music production company. Mothersbaugh is one of the members of Devo, the world's original techno-geek band. You can walk around Mutato's headquarters while listening to his musical meanderings.
Geek Factor: Visit 3-D worlds from your desk.
Weak Factor: VRML is a shaky standard. And it's slow — man, it's slow.
Coordinates: TopGun, 7th Level, (http://www.7thlevel.com); Wirl, Vream Inc., 312-477-0425, (http://www.vream.com).
John R. Quain (email@example.com) is a contributing editor at Fast Company and appears regularly on the CBS News program "Up to the Minute."