Harry Potter to Webcast a spell online

Can Microsoft, BT and Endemol ensure that millions of surfers get a taste of the Hogwarts magic?

The Internet's ability to perform effectively as a broadcast medium will be tested as never before later this month, when author J.K Rowling takes part in what is anticipated to be a massively popular Webcast.

Rowling and her publishers Bloomsbury have turned to the Web in an attempt to address huge interest in Rowling's latest book -- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- which will hit the shops just after midnight on 21 June.

Rowling is scheduled to read from the book at the Royal Albert Hall on 26 June in front of an audience of just 4,000. But by teaming up with MSN, BT and TV production company Endemol, Rowling's publishers plan to stream the performance live on the Web to a likely worldwide audience of millions.

Internet viewers will get the chance to put questions to Rowling, through host Stephen Fry. The recording will be streamed at several different resolutions to suit both narrowband and broadband users, and will be available online for a week after the event.

BT is sponsoring the event in an attempt to raise the profile of its BT Broadband product, which has failed to hit the customer targets set last year.

"The Internet is obviously the best place to share a once-in-a-lifetime event like this," said Angus Porter, managing director of BT Consumer, in a statement. "The Webcast is a fabulous way to showcase how broadband can bring the imagination alive, and demonstrate the new lease of life which a broadband connection gives the family PC -- making Harry Potter come alive in the comfort of your own home".

Previous attempts to stream live broadcasts on the Internet have met with problems, though, when systems have proved incapable of coping with the number of Internet users who have wanted to watch an event.

Probably the most notorious example of this was the attempt to stream a Madonna concert live on the Internet. Microsoft, which organised the Webcast, claimed that nine million people tuned in, but many fans complained that their connection was slow and jerky, if they managed to get one at all. Others reported that they were unable to actually hear the star in action.

MSN, BT and Endemol have the chance to bury claims that the Internet cannot be used for this kind of application and should leave it to television, or to re-enforce them.

The much-loved boy wizard is making something of a habit of pushing back online boundaries. Last month Amazon announced that it had taken almost one million pre-orders for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, breaking all previous records.


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