Plug-ins are external programs that can be launched within your browser. They enable you to add capabilities to your browser without adding new functionality to the browser software itself. Plug-ins are often installed as part of a larger standalone application. For example, the QuickTime Player is a standalone application used to play videos, listen to audio files, and view images, but it also installs plug-ins that enable you to view QuickTime files in your browser. On the other hand, Macromedia's Flash Player exists only as a browser plug-in. It simply enables you to view Flash animations within web pages.
Plug-ins originated with Netscape 2.0. Internet Explorer uses ActiveX controls, which provide similar functionality, but work differently. The advantage of the Internet Explorer approach is that new ActiveX controls can be downloaded and installed without closing the browser when you encounter a file that requires a control in order to be viewed. I'm lumping all of these under the general-purpose label of plug-ins, but the approach differs between the two browsers. Mozilla Firefox uses plug-ins just like its ancestor, Netscape Navigator.
As you learned earlier today, the problem with multimedia files that require plug-ins is that if you use them in your web pages, your visitors must have the correct plug-in installed in order to view them. Visitors who don't have your plug-in will get empty space or broken icons on your page where the multimedia should be or, in the case of Internet Explorer, be prompted to install the appropriate control. To further complicate the matter, some plug-ins are available only for some platforms.
The big four plug-ins are Windows Media Player, which is bundled with the latest versions of Windows; QuickTime, which is native to Macintosh but is available for Windows as well; RealPlayer, which is also available for Windows and Mac OS, and Flash Player, which is installed with Microsoft Internet Explorer. They each support their own proprietary formats, which generally only they can play, and except for Flash, they can also all play the common audio and video formats. When you have more than one of these applications installed, they sometimes fight over which of them gets to play the types of files that they have in common.
Windows Media Player
The Windows Media Player, available at www.microsoft.com/windows/mediaplayer, is included as part of the Windows operating system and can play many multimedia file types. It also offers a number of other features, such as the capability to copy songs from CDs, burn them to CDs, and maintain a media library. Version 10, shown in Figure 11.11, is currently available, but only for users of Windows XP. Users of Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows 98 SE, and Mac OS X can use version 9. Windows 98 users can install version 7.1. If you're using Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 95, you must stick with Windows Media Player 6.4.
Figure 11.11. The Windows Media Player can play MP3s and other popular multimedia formats.
Version 10 of Windows Media Player can play the following file types:
Developed by Macromedia, the Flash Player is a popular plug-in that was originally designed to allow publishers to include low-bandwidth animations (created using Macromedia Flash) into web pages. Flash animations are extremely compact in comparison to traditional bitmap animations. The Flash Player offers the advantage of streaming the animations as your browser receives them rather than having to wait for the entire animation to download.
Shockwave is a plug-in that enables Macromedia Director movies to be played as inline multimedia on a web page. Macromedia Director is a popular tool among professional multimedia developers for creating presentations that include sound, video, and 3D graphics. It is also a popular choice for creating games that can be embedded within web pages. If you're used to working with Director, Shockwave provides an easy way to put Director presentations on the Web. Or, if you're looking to do serious multimedia work on the Web or anywhere else, Director is definitely a tool to check out. You can find additional information on Macromedia Shockwave at http://www.macromedia.com/shockwave.
Flash is sometimes referred to as Shockwave Flash, but they are separate formats, and Shockwave requires additional software beyond the Flash Player.
Apple QuickTime is both a file format and a player. The player, available from Apple at www.apple.com/quicktime, plays Apple's QuickTime movies (QT, MOV) along with audio and video files in a number of other formats, and is available for both Macintosh and Windows platforms (see Figure 11.12).
Figure 11.12. Use the QuickTime player to play saved or streaming QuickTime movies.
When you install QuickTime, it automatically installs plug-ins for your browsers.
In addition to playing QuickTime movies, QuickTime VR (for virtual reality) is also supported. These aren't movies per se, but rather interactive images that provide a three-dimensional view of a scene. For example, using QuickTime VR, you can provide an image of a car that allows the user to view it from any angle.
Apple also offers the iTunes music player, an application for organizing and playing music stored on your computer. It supports MP3 and AAC files, and can play audio streamed over the Internet as well.
RealNetworks started out by specializing in steaming audio that you could listen to over a low bandwidth connection. They have since expanded to cover the same ground as the other major media players with support for streaming video, playing audio from CDs, and ripping songs to your computer and burning new CDs. There's a free version that you can use if you just want to view RealAudio and RealVideo streams over the Internet (see Figure 11.13).
Figure 11.13. Use RealPlayer to check out streaming audio and video.
RealPlayer plays streaming RealAudio and RealVideo files of the following variety:
WinAmp is the quintessential MP3 player. It was one of the first popular MP3 players, and it has remained very popular even as nearly every other audio application has added support for MP3 files. Not only can WinAmp play MP3 files that you create yourself or download over the Internet, but it can tune into Internet radio stations that stream MP3 audio and can play other popular audio formats, such as WAV. WinAmp appears in Figure 11.14.
Figure 11.14. The WinAmp interface.