The State of Streaming Media

by Steve McCannell

Media technology in the 80s

Years ago my father went to the electronics store to bring home a video deck for the family. Not knowing the difference between the two types of VCRs, he pondered purchasing a Betamax, only to be shrewdly steered away by my mother for the more consumer-friendly VHS machine (thanks Mom). A year later, VHS had become the dominant format, and whenever we went to the video store to rent a movie, we couldn't help but chuckle at the helpless souls selecting a movie from the paltry beta section.

Today's streaming media

While visiting my parents' home this past holiday season, I wanted to show my father a story on about a new concept car, mainly because the story contained both text and video. Since my father is not known for his Internet expertise, I thought he would get a kick out of the ability to view a video clip on demand. But when we selected the link to the video, a pop-up window appeared and asked us which format we wanted: QuickTime, Real, or Windows Media. I turned to my father and asked which format he preferred, to which he replied, "What's the difference?" Suddenly I began having Beta flashbacks.

At this point I could have gone on and on about the differences between the formats, but to tell you the truth, it didn't seem that significant since each format does basically the same thing. I decided to select the QuickTime format, only to find that my father's computer didn't have QuickTime installed. Next I chose RealPlayer, and was told that I needed to upgrade my player to play the clip. Luckily the Windows Media format worked, or my father would've been telling his golf buddies the next morning that he was worried his son might be better off getting a job outside of the Web industry.

After we watched the video clip, my Dad raised some interesting questions:

  1. Was all this effort really worth it? Without a broadband connection, viewers like my father must first wait for the file to download, only to find that the viewing area is no bigger than 200 pixels wide. In addition, streaming media over a modem is blurry due to the use of a high-compression codec. Even with a broadband connection, does the streaming content available today really hold that much value past the few clips you might be interested in?
  2. Why can't there be just one good streaming media format instead of three -- Real, QuickTime, and Windows Media? Having three formats forces streaming media providers to use different streaming software to produce each type of clip, while end-users are stuck downloading endless versions of increasingly bloated media player software to view the tiny, blurry video.

Slow to grow

While streaming media is still in its infancy, little progress has been made since RealNetworks emerged five years ago. The codecs used today aren't capable of delivering a high-quality presentation over low and mid-range connections, and widespread broadband deployment is still a long way off. While each format claims to be superior to the competition, the increasingly heated war over market share hasn't spurred any major improvements in the technology. The majority of the streaming clips I see today are just as bad as the clips I watched two years ago.

At the end of 2000, the streaming media industry was quick to boast of a successful year, pointing to a 65 percent growth in streaming media downloads -- from 21 million in 1999 to 34.7 million in 2000, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. However, these figures are misleading, as there was only an 8 percent increase in number of Web surfers who accessed some form of streaming media in the past year, while access to the Web rose 30 percent.

The streaming media industry would undeniably be better off if the streaming media companies could agree on interoperable standards, simplifying the end-user experience. Yet none of the big three streaming media formats are showing signs of "the Betamax syndrome" and they also aren't showing any signs of convergence.

A possible solution

Apple Computer (parents of QuickTime) made the first step toward creating a common standard, when they open-sourced their streaming software last year. They have also joined the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA), along with such IT heavyweights as Cisco, Sun Microsystems, Philips, and other industry leaders in an effort to promote open streaming media standards. The first standard the ISMA is promoting is MPEG-4, an audio/video compression format that has been adopted by the ISO, and it could very well change the way we get online media content.

The MPEG-4 format was designed to use high-compression ratios for deployment of video and audio over the Internet without a loss in quality. To do this, it looks at data as audio-video objects that can be manipulated and encoded independently, instead of treating the data as a continuous stream.

When the data is broken up into objects, static objects (like backgrounds) only need to be encoded once. The data is then encoded as 16x16 or 8x8 pixel blocks, encoding the object only if it changes (as opposed to encoding each frame). If you have a speaker standing in front of a static background, there isn't a lot of change in video objects. This means there is less data to encode, which translates to a smaller file size without a loss in quality. The format also offers a wide range of bit rates for transmission over the Internet (from 10 Kbps to 10 Mbps) to improve the user experience.

MPEG-4 could be a viable format to push streaming media into the mainstream business, entertainment, and education sectors. Yet in order for the format to succeed, it will need to be an adopted standard by market leaders Microsoft and RealNetworks, who continue to pursue separate paths and don't look to be joining ISMA anytime in the near future.

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