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New Opportunities for Viewing and Sharing Streaming Media (8/2005)
by Douglas Dixon
Are you streaming? Even as an enthusiast or a small business, recent developments in streaming technologies and services make it much more feasible and affordable to add streaming to your website, or to use a streaming service to share a special event with others across the globe. As demonstrated by the range of products at the recent Streaming Media East conference in New York (and the upcoming West show in San Jose in November, www.streamingmedia.com), streaming can provide interesting new business opportunities, especially for video professionals and wedding / event videographers. For example, imagine offering live streaming of a wedding to relatives overseas (plus the rehearsal dinner), or the option of viewing the edited wedding video online as well.
Streaming is back, but more quietly and more business-like this time -- Streaming got so hot in the late 90's and into the dot-com boom, but then it seemed to cool off as our attention turned to DVD and other more accessible new technologies. With the compression technology of the time, and slower Internet connections, the promise of streaming too often was lost in the frustrating experience of watching low-res sputtering videos, and in the pain of trying to deal with multiple changing formats and configuring touchy streaming servers.
But now with better technology and broadband connections, we've become accustomed to using the Internet to access media by downloading music files and video clips of movie trailers. At the same time, streaming has made a comeback with better infrastructure and tools to provide a much better viewing experience. And as PDAs get connected and mobile phones become media players, streaming is primed for a big comeback in our lives.
To see the range of what's possible with streaming, start by visiting the websites associated with the major formats -- Apple QuickTime (www.apple.com/quicktime), Microsoft Windows Media (www.windowsmedia.com), and RealNetworks (guide.real.com). Just make sure you've downloaded the latest media players associated with the formats -- the formats have been relatively stable for the past year or so, but the players have been updated and tweaked.
Apple also recently upgraded QuickTime to version 7, adding support for the new improved flavor of MPEG-4, known as H.264 or MPEG-4 Part 10. (You'd think Apple could invent a sexier name than the ones adopted by the standards committees, as it did with "FireWire.") Available first on Mac OS X, the QuickTime 7 Player now supports three flavors of MPEG-4: new H.264, original MPEG-4, and 3GPP for mobile devices (www.apple.com/mpeg4). Just be aware that while H.264 offers significantly better compression -- MPEG-2 quality at as little as a third of the data rate, or high-res video at the same data rate as MPEG-2 -- its complexity also requires more processing power to decode.
The Macromedia Flash Video format is also becoming more popular (www.macromedia.com/devnet/mx/flash/video.html). Flash videos can be easily viewed by a broad audience, since the Flash player is already installed on over 94% of web-connected computers. And, of course, you then can integrate your videos into dynamic interactive Flash applications.
When you visit these media guide sites, you'll notice a mix of streamed material and downloads, especially music video and movie trailers. But mostly you'll see how today's streaming video is better-looking and starts playing faster, especially at higher speeds over broadband connections. The process still can be a bit clunky at times -- sometimes the clips are displayed within the browser and sometimes in a separate media player window, and the Internet connection can be inconsistent with transient slowdowns -- but hey, it's fun and free.
Even more, streaming has been integrated into other content-based sites on the web -- aggregator sites like Yahoo Movies now offer streaming clips for previewing movies (movies.yahoo.com). And these kinds of sites also use streaming video and audio clips for previewing DVDs and music for purchase and downloading.
For access to music, while the Apple iTunes Music Store currently only offers the option to purchase tracks for downloading (www.apple.com/itunes/store), sites like Yahoo Music Unlimited provide subscription access to an entire library of over one million songs for as little as $4.99 a month (music.yahoo.com).
And for watching movies, sites like CinemaNow offer recently-released movies for 24-hour pay-per-view for around $3.99 to $4.50, or older titles for permanent download for $4.99 to $19.99 (www.cinemanow.com).
This kind of subscription access to streamed content makes even more sense with the growth of wireless devices -- for example, Sprint PCS Vision Music Choice offers streaming music videos and six commercial-free music channels on PCS Vision phones for $5.95 a month, plus offerings of live and pre-recorded Sprint TV videos (www.sprintpcs.com).
With this proliferation of sources for video content comes the need to search for particular clips. Sites like Google and Yahoo already provide Image search, based on the text found near images in Web pages that it indexes. But video search is trickier, since there can be a lot of different content embedded within a video file. These engines therefore need some kind of associated text that describes the contents of a clip.
Yahoo Video Search is based on a Media extension of the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) specification (video.search.yahoo.com). Yahoo indexes clips from partners including Buena Vista Pictures, CBS News, MTV, Reuters, Scripps Networks (Home & Garden, Food Network), VH1, and IFILM. But the Media RSS format also means that it's possible for independent video publishers to promote or syndicate their content through Yahoo. Yahoo shows search results with thumbnails of the clips, and you can click to see the associated Web page and then play the clip.
Google Video Search, initially released in beta, instead indexes the closed captioning text of televised content from sources including CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, PBS, plus local NBC and ABC affiliates (video.google.com). In its initial version, Google Video returns the transcript and thumbnail images, but not the video itself -- though it does list the schedule for when the show will air next.
Google also is starting a Google Video Upload Program which is offering to host digital video files of any length and size (https://upload.video.google.com). Initially, Google is collecting videos for potential inclusion in the program, and then plans to allow users to search, preview, purchase, and play the videos. Google will take a "small revenue share" if you choose to charge for your video, or have a very large and popular clip. Google requests MPEG2 or MPEG4 videos with MP3 audio.
Another alternative for accessing content is Open Media Network (OMN), launched in April 2005 (www.omn.org). OMN is a free public service network that provides worldwide access to public television and radio programming, movies, podcasts and video blogs. It uses the Kontiki grid delivery technology, and supports Windows Media digital rights management (DRM). OMN delivers to PCs, iPods, mobile phones, and TV. To upload content, prepare a RSS feed with the file and associated descriptive metadata, and then OMN will cache the content and make it available for access.
These large video search and aggregation sites like Google and Yahoo are great for sharing your productions with anybody and everybody around the globe. But what about just posting streaming media to share with a more selective audience, whether family or business? Instead of needing to host these large files yourself and configure your own streaming server, you can use a video sharing website -- something of a natural extension from photo sharing sites.
For example, Digital Silo will convert and preserve previously shot videotapes and films, hosting up to up to 240 hours of video with unlimited sharing for $9.95 per year (www.digitalsilo.com). You submit your tapes, and Digital Silo will convert them to Internet format for $44.95 per hour of transferred video, with a backup DVD video copy.
But if you are generating your own digital videos, then you need a site where you can upload files to be stored and distributed. You can sign up for a free Streamload account to use 10 GB of storage and up to 100 MB of downloads per month (www.streamload.com). Streamload then offers paid plans with unlimited storage starting at $4.95 per month with 1 GB per month downloads, up to terabyte plans offering 15 TB of downloads for $4,399 per month. You can use Streamload as a really big virtual library or shared file store, not just for videos, and music, and photos, but for other digital data as well. You also can use it to share files by email, or to directly transfer masses of data to the recipient's Streamload Inbox.
For an independent or small video producer, however, it would be better to integrate streaming content into your own website. For the major media sites, this is the domain of content publishing and delivery services, also called Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), that perform one or more of the tasks of aggregating, managing, hosting, and / or delivering large collections of streaming clips.
Just to see the strength and activity in this industry, here is a sampling of publishing and CDN companies exhibiting at Streaming Media East, with representative customers:
- thePlatform provides digital media publishing systems and services for media, entertainment and enterprise customers, to publish over any network, to any device (www.theplatform.com). It powers the sites for CNBC Dow Jones, CourtTV, Comcast "The Fan," MSN Video Downloads, and the Verizon Wireless V CAST 3G video service.
- Entriq develops and manages for-pay media infrastructure for broadcast TV as well as broadband and mobile (www.entriq.com). Customers include World Wrestling Entertainment, Prince's NPG Music Club, Echostar/Dish Network, MTV Music Television, and NBC Universal.
- The FeedRoom specializes in delivering a TV experience over broadband, hosting branded sites for companies to communicate to consumers, investors, trade writers, and employees (www.feedroom.com). Clients include WalMart, General Motors, Chevron, and ESPN.
- Limelight Networks is a content delivery network for demand and live delivery of video, music, games, and downloads to large audiences (www.limelightnetworks.com). Limelight has 400 customers including ABC Radio, Buy.com, DreamWorks, IFILM, Musicmatch - Yahoo!, NPR, and Real Networks Rhapsody.
- VitalStream provides CDN services, including streaming Windows Media and Flash formats and live event broadcasting (www.vitalstream.com). Customers include Fortune 500 corporations, movie studios, news broadcasters, music and radio companies, advertising agencies, and educational institutions.
- Akamai provides distributed content delivery to provide reliable delivery over the Internet, through peak traffic conditions and with large file sizes (www.akamai.com). It routinely handles 15% of total Internet traffic for over 1,300 customers.
As you can see, streaming is a big business, and a wide variety of companies have integrated video as part of their Web content and communication. But what about smaller businesses, educational institutions, and even enthusiasts? They cannot support managing their own dedicated streaming site, or afford to install a high-end content delivery network. The Streaming Media conference included some interesting possibilities, from more focused streaming services to packaged streaming solutions as dedicated hardware appliances.
PlayStream (recently acquired by VitalStream) provides content delivery services specifically targeted to smaller businesses and even consumers (www.playstream.com). It offers media management support including reporting statistics, and supports Windows Media, QuickTime, Real, Flash, and MP3 streaming formats, as well as Java streaming. You can try out a free 15-day evaluation period.
You can use PlayStream to host your video clips, for example to post general promotional clips, or to provide password access to clips for specific clients. Basic streaming services start as low as $10 per month for 50 MB of storage and 1.60 GB data transfer, scaling up to $165 for 1 GB storage and 30 GB transfer, and up to $794 for 5 GB storage and 150 GB transfer. PlayStream also offers enterprise plans up to 50 GB with per-usage data transfer charges.
You also can do live webcasting with PlayStream, providing a live feed from a special event, or for continuous broadcasting. Webcasting plans starting at $13 a month for a basic 8 Kb stream with 25 simultaneous users, scaling up to $1356 a month for a 32 Kb stream with a maximum 1000 users, and to $1,846 for a full 300 Kb stream with 100 users. Or you can use a fixed-rate plan for 24x7 continuous streaming at $19.95 per month plus data transfer costs.
If you are doing a lot of live streaming then you may want to invest in a hardware appliance that does the whole job without needing to configure PC-based systems for capture, servers, or playback. This approach can be particularly useful for educational and corporate environments where you may want to stream from different rooms on the campus, or for hosting webcasts from different event locations.
For example, VBrick Systems offers turnkey hardware devices for end-to-end streaming, with support for MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formats to originate a webcast, receive and play back, or provide two-way video conferencing (www.vbrick.com). Encoder / Decoder devices start at $4995, or you can connect the capture and playback devices to a Media Control Server to manage live, on-demand, and scheduled video assets (around $25,000), and then also play back on the EtherneTV-STB (Set Top Box) or on a computer with the StreamPlayer software. VBrick also offers VBSSM (Security, Surveillance and Monitoring) Encoder/Decoder appliances supporting both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 starting at around $3,000.
Finally, there's the clearly named Webcast in a Box, a plug-and-play webcast appliance (www.webcastinabox.com). You configure the webcast host connection, store the setup on a USB key, then plug it in to the Webcast in a Box device (along with a video camera), and start streaming.
So streaming is back, no longer as the hot new cutting-edge thing, but as a powerful and usable tool for communicating and entertaining across the globe. You can webcast a live meeting or large event, or allow access to stored productions, across a campus or to distributed audiences, anywhere and any time.
For information and links on finding videos online and making your own videos, see the Internet Video Magazine site (www.internetvideomag.com).
Streaming Media Conference
Internet Video Magazine
Apple - MPEG-4
Apple - iTunes Music Store
Yahoo - Music Unlimited
Sprint - PCS Vision
Yahoo Video Search
Google Video Upload Program
Open Media Network (OMN)
Webcast in a Box