The RealMedia format highly compresses audio and video information, trading fidelity for quick download times. Many RealMedia clips are compressed enough that they can stream: your browser can play them as they come over the network, starting just a few seconds after you click on a link. This capability depends in part on whether the web site you are visiting has the software necessary to serve the RealMedia files as a stream. If not, or if your connection is slow, you may need to save the file on your hard drive and play it back manually after the download is complete. As a rough rule of thumb, a minute of audio will take about a minute to download with a standard consumer internet connection (28.8k or 36k modem).
The RealPlayer can play all types of RealMedia (including RealAudio soundbites) and is available for free from RealNetworks. They also sell a more advanced player that gives you more control over the playback.
If you want to create your own RealMedia files, free encoders are available at RealNetworks. Encoders with advanced features are also for sale there.
How can a company survive by giving everything away for free like this? As noted, players and encoders with advanced capabilities cost money. But more importantly, web server software that provides streaming capability is only available from RealNetworks, and at a rather hefty price. So content providers serving the media this way take on the cost for you. Your ISP is likely to have server software to do this for those customers who run their own web sites. Thus you are likely to be paying for RealMedia through your monthly ISP charges, whether you use the technology or not. So you might as well use it!
The "MP" in "MP3" is short for "MPEG," the Motion Picture Experts Group, a noncommercial society that has defined evolving standards for compression of audio and video information. "MP3" refers to audio layer III of the MPEG 2 standard for compressing audio/visual data. It is quickly becoming the standard format for distributing very good quality audio (often near CD quality) in a highly compressed form, taking as little as 1/10th the disk space (and download time!) the original audio information occupied. There are even small hardware players you can take with you that will play MP3 files stored on a small data card, like a WalkMan or DiscMan. MP3 files do not stream; you have to download them first and then play them. As a rough rule of thumb, a minute of audio will take a few minutes to download.
MPEG establishes compression standards but does not itself implement players and encoders. The good side of this is that many independent organizations and individuals offer MPEG software and hardware with a wide range of capabilities (and costs). The bad side is that many independent organizations.... Well, you get the idea: You have to look around to find what you need. Here are some pointers for MP3 audio resources, and some pointers that will help you find more general MPEG resources.
Macintosh: A very popular (and free!) Macintosh audio player that will play pretty much every type of audio file you may encounter (including MP3) is Norman Franke's SoundApp; you can find it at most Mac freeware/shareware archives, such as InfoMac. Another popular and free Macintosh player designed especially for MP3 is MacAMP. It looks like a home stereo component on your screen, and lets you maintain playlists and easily adjust volume and tone during playback. Visit the MacAMP Download Page to get a copy. For more Macintosh player selections, check out the Macintosh MP3 player list at mp3.com and the Macintosh MP3 Information page.
Windows: A popular Windows MP3 player is Winamp (shareware). Visit the Winamp Download Page to get a copy. For more Windows player selections (shareware and freeware), check out the Windows MP3 player list at mp3.com.
Other Operating Systems: For other platforms (Linux, Solaris, OS/2, Amiga, SGI, FreeBSD), you can find software lists at mp3.com.
If you are interested in creating MP3 files from digital audio files (your own, or those extracted from a CD), you need an encoder. The mp3.com web site has lists of encoders for various platforms; their Windows coverage is much better than that for other platforms. Other collections of links to sources for Macintosh encoders are at the Macintosh MP3 Information page and at Raum. The mp3.com site also has links to CD rippers that will extract audio from CDs using your computer's CDROM drive.
For official MPEG information (on all aspects of the MPEG audio/video standards), visit the MPEG Home Page. Another good starting point if you are seeking MPEG information is MPEG.ORG - MPEG Pointers and Resources. For general MP3 information with a Macintosh focus, visit the MPEG Audio Page.
This information is provided to you by Muse: Inspirational Technology. We hope it's been useful! For the record: We do web development on a PowerMac. We create soundbites as follows (all of the software mentioned below is freeware):