Remember the old barbershop quartet standard, "Down By the Old Mill Stream?" In real life, the stream was a place where the water powered the wheels of industry and where the stream itself led to rivers where barges and steam-powered sternwheel boats carried goods and materials to market. Of course, that is all nostalgia now, as manufacturing process and physical distribution has changed dramatically since the song was written close to 100 years ago.
However, when it comes to the distribution of information, the stream is still powering things. Today, however, that stream is one of electrons and ones and zeroes. A wired or wireless network infrastructure or the internet is the river that transports information in packets flowing one after the other in a manner not unlike the barges of yesteryear. Like the varied array of goods on the barges, today's streams also carry many things from a wide range of shores, including audio and video programming of all types in constant flows, like a big river, or occasional flows that are not unlike a stream that only has water in it when the upstream dam or the flood gates are open.
The concept of streaming media may seem a bit odd for commercial applications. Then again, if you are charged with managing access to libraries of content, streaming distribution is another option to consider as an arrow in your quiver of distribution technologies. A collection of sermons? Archival lectures from retired professors? Constantly used employee orientation or training videos? If you put old notions of physical media or full bandwidth distribution aside, the combination of compression, ease of storage, meta-data for identification and compatibility with a wide range of play-out hardware options makes streaming media something that you should at least keep on your radar.
The comfort factor that the public at large has with streaming content makes it easier for you to consider replacing a direct connection to the source or physical media as your program source. The infrastructure for that can come from your web host when streams are fed over the internet, or from internal servers. The products to do this are readily available from a variety of vendors, with the broadcasters and internet providers already doing the hard work of wringing out all the bugs for you. Taken to the simplest level, getting involved in streaming can be as easy as using one of the popular music management programs to take in your programming in MP3 or WMA formats and serve it out.
Not into the "computer thing" that much and operating on a limited budget? Don't ignore the possibility of adapting the Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition as a possible server-out device. While it was conceived to deliver content to remote client boxes in a home, as long as the content is there, who cares if it is entertainment, information or education?
Making things easier at the client, or "receive" end of things, the hardware requirements vary with the application. If you are using streaming as a means to deliver content over the public internet or on an enterprise-strength intranet, nothing more than a browser may be needed at the client computers. Simply have the user go through any necessary authentication or password gate, point a media player to your site, select the desired content, and they're in business.
In applications where a computer isn't possible or appropriate, the consumer world has spawned a new category of devices that eliminate the need for a computer. These "thin client players," now being popularized as MediaCenter Extenders by Microsoft, have the ability to connect to a host server via a wired or wireless network, select the content in MP3 or WMA (usually) format, and play it back. In some cases, the client "receiver" even has its own front-panel display, remote control and on-board amplification. That makes it easier to take a kiosk-like for access to the streams.
While most of the consumer thin client boxes, such as products from Netgear, Linksys and SMC are audio only, some, such as D-Link's "Media Lounge" products and the MediaCenter Extender models from Linksys and HP allow easy access to video content.
Going to what may not be such a ridiculous extreme, TiVo Series 2 set-tops may even be worth considering. With wired or wireless networking, their easy-to-use menu system can be used to retrieve and play back audio programming stored on a computer elsewhere on the network.