June 26, 2007

The New RealPlayer 11 - A First Look

The new, "web-video-download-center" version of RealPlayer (Is RealPlayer Going to Make a Comeback?) is out this morning. [Download RealPlayer 11]  Some first impressions:
  • Download: A 13MB download, but no questions asked and no prompting for personal info
  • Installation: At about 80 seconds on my MacBook Pro (WinXP under Parallels), still not zippy, but it asked just a few simple questions about configuration on a single screen. Much simpler than prior versions.
  • Loading: Loads up quickly - much more quickly than older RealPlayers.  Feels fast.  The UI still includes tabs for managing your media library, looking at the RealGuide, etc.  But interestingly, the RealGuide, rather than be full of links to teenybopper pop stars, is full of links to top content on YouTube, Metacafe, and the like. Screenshot of RealPlayer download button on Brightcove page
  • Downloading video from the Web: Of course, the feature everyone's talking about, RP11 adds a "Download This" link to videos that appear on any Web site with video.  Shown is a screenshot showing the button added to a Brightcove page:
  • Clicking the download button gets you a download manager that resembles Firefox's download manager. 
  • Videos go into your video library in their native format -- no conversions or obfuscating file names -- it's just there in plain view in the home directory (\My Documents\My Videos\RealPlayer Downloads by default)
One interesting thing about RP11 is what it will not download:
  • RTMP Streaming Flash video (from a Flash Media Server or equivalent) will not download.  Only HTTP-delivered FLV will work. 
  • DRM-protected video will not download.
The built-in "Share This" button on RealPlayer sends a link to the original video content.

All in all, I found that RP11 downloads video successfully from a wide variety of sites, including YouTube, Metacafe, Brightcove, CNN and others.  My first "cannot record this" hit came from Harvard@Home's Human Systems Explorer site, which uses true Flash rtmp streaming from Akamai.

Not a bad first impression. Some things need further exploration.  For example, I haven't yet found out how to hide, when the player first opens, the window that shows the RealGuide, the Library, and other stuff that's not "just the video, please".  Maybe this fits with Real's apparent strategy to make the standalone player into a good media download/management center and leave the embedded player for "video only" uses.  I'll post more info as I learn more.

June 21, 2007

Is RealPlayer going to make a comeback?

Real Networks' newest RealPlayer player appears to be a huge departure from their earlier client-side products.  While the Helix server technology and the RealVideo codecs have been ones-to-beat in streaming media technology, the RealPlayer has been the face of the company to the user community - and it hasn't always been a pretty face.  Real's marketing folks, in the heat of their battle for survival with Microsoft, saw RealPlayer as a the company's direct pipeline to users' pocketbooks.  

Let's face it - the RealPlayer, despite its technological excellence (SMIL 1.0 & 2.0, universal format support, the industry's best codecs, and support for nearly every OS and browser out there) became an abomination - big heavy download, cumbersome registration required, ads and eye candy all over the place, "notifications" that pop up and annoy with marketing messages.

Fast-forward to today -- In the new world of the Web, Flash is taking over because its player is everywhere and its user experience is simple, unmarred by distractions, and an easy download in the unlikely case you need it.  I've even been able to install the Flash player using Firefox's XPI Flash installer - no UI whatsoever, just one click and it's in.

So with many of Real's remaining customers (there are many, especially in the higher-education industry) avidly looking for alternatives to RealPlayer, and Real rapidly approaching irrelevance in the video technology space, RealNetworks has come up with a new approach. Real's new player (RealPlayer 11) boasts two major innovations:
  1. The player is small and unobtrusive, with a quick, easy install that asks no questions, takes over nothing, and generally leaves you alone.
  2. In what could be a stunning new capability, RP11 will download non-DRM-protected video from any website, in any format (Flash. Real, QuickTime, WindowsMedia, etc).  While you're watching that video on YouTube, Google, Metacafe, Brightcove, or anywhere else, RP11 will add a little "save this" button to the video itself. 
The idea is that RealPlayer becomes the base of your personal video library. You can share (by sending around links to the original source), or with a $30 upgrade, burn to DVD disc. Presumably, one of these options will let you easily flip content to your iPod.  There's a pretty good video demo given by Real VP Jeff Chasen at Scobleizer.com.

Dan Rayburn at the Business of Online Video blog wonders what's the business advantage to Real?

Now aside from the obvious idea that content owners may revolt at the idea of people being able to save their content whether they want them to or not, I just don't see the value to RealNetworks in a new player. Why offer it?  

And I think the bigger question is, do we really need more players in the industry? Isn't it already hard enough for consumers? How many more players and plugins are we going to try and force viewers to have to download?

He's not alone.  Real's CEO Rob Glaser makes his case in his post The World Isn't Flat, and responds directly to Rafat Ali's "Open Questions to Rob Glaser" in his own RealNetworks Blog post.

The new RealPlayer gives the users lots of control over Internet video -- watching it offline, burning it to CD or DVDs, storing it in a library, etc. Sharing content links directly from the RealPlayer library can be really useful. A number of people who’ve tested the pre-beta have told me that they love watching a few seconds of a video on a web site, then using RealPlayer to download a copy for later viewing.

My take?  Looking at the education industry, up to now I see a large investment in Real's technology that's been feeling more and more like a liability, strictly because of the horrendous RealPlayers of the RealONE/RP10 generation.  Folks are looking at costly switches to Flash video infrastructure not because the video or server technology is so great, but mainly because the player has mindshare and doesn't do anything to piss-off its users.  

So, if Real's new player is something that a) is a no-brainer to install and use; and b) provides truly useful functionality on top of the enormous-and-growing world of online video content, it may just become relevant again to online users. And that's good for Real's existing customers, for sure.  How that helps Real acquire new paying customers isn't clear to me, but I'd guess that anything that makes RealPlayer more relevant in the marketplace has to be a good first step.

May 01, 2007

Is Amazon's S3 the cheapest streaming video hosting out there?

[EDIT Feb 26, 2010] There's a new how-to article on this topic. How to Get Started with Cloudfront Streaming is the example page for the article How to Get Started with Cloudfront Streaming[/EDIT]

While researching CDNs for storage and delivery of digital video, I found that at least one major user-generated video website provider is using Amazon's S3 service for delivery of Flash video over HTTP. For http delivery of lots of clips on-demand, S3 is apparently doing the job.  The costs are astonishingly low:
  • $0.15/GB stored per month
  • $0.18/GB delivered (or less)
A look at Dan Rayburn's recent blog post listing streaming CDN vendors shows some of the streaming heavyweights, with broad networks of origin and edge servers optimized for real-time media delivery.  Akamai, for example, pre-caches media content close to the network's edges, making videos load quicker. For a site that's advertising-funded, fast loading pages can lead to more page views, which equals more revenue. 

But, S3 is an option I hadn't thought of for online video.  There's no support for the RTMP or RTSP streaming protocols, but many sites are just fine with HTTP download delivery these days. (Streaming vs. Downloading - What's the Difference?)  While it may not be optimized around realtime delivery, it certainly offers unlimited scalability at rock-bottom prices.  And options like its rich developer API and BitTorrent integration could be an asset to a comprehensive media delivery strategy.  It's certainly an option worth looking at.    

April 06, 2007

Online Video and Web 2.0 - What's missing?

Dan Rayburn points out in his Business of Online Video blog that streaming video isn't a Web 2.0 technology.  But while Dan's point is that streaming video has been around way too long to be considered part of the Web 2.0 "fad", I think the relationship between video and Web 2.0 is more complicated than that.  

The key ingredient of "Web 2.0" technologies that makes them worthy of that label is that they have open APIs and are freeform platforms that allow user behavior to define and create value.  Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee says it well...

...the use of technology platforms that are initially freeform (meaning that they don't specify up front roles, identities, workflows, or interdependencies) and eventually emergent (meaning that they come over time to contain patterns and structure that can be exploited by their members).  Email is a channel, not a platform; groupware is not freeform and typically not emergent; and knowledge management systems were essentially the opposite of freeform --  they presupposed the structure of the knowledge they were meant to capture. 

...so, to build a Web 2.0 service, Andy says, 
  • Build platforms, not channels
  • Make sure they're initially freeform
  • Build in mechanisms for emergence.  These mechanisms include links, tags, powerful search...
...and, I'd add, simple APIs for combining and syndicating content from one site to another.  Sites like YouTube are on the edge of Web 2.0 because of the ease with which users can publish their content not just to YouTube, but to other sites.  Web 2.0 facilitates video mashups: videos can be embedded across sites, search results can be published as RSS, users can "mash-up" collections of video with photos from Flickr and maps from Google or Yahoo.

But, Dan's right - video isn't really Web 2.0 enough, yet.  As Microsoft's Jon Udell points out

The kinds of standard affordances that we take for granted on the textual web — select, copy, reorganize, link, paste — are missing in action on the audio-visual web. The lack of such affordances in our current crop of (mostly) proprietary media players suggests that open source and open standards can help move things along. But nobody in the open world or in the proprietary world has really figured out what those affordances need to be in the first place.

Standard ways to search within video, associate a video timeline with other media, and deep-link into video content simply don't exist.  RealPlayer and WindowsMedia always did offer a way to deep link using start parameters in the .ram or .asx file URLs, but the endless variety of custom Flash video players (since there isn't really an official, usable "standard" one) means that even that simple method is no longer available on most sites.  And as for search -- while web search engines crawling into a Word document or a PDF file is routine, video content search hasn't caught on, even though the technology, from (the defunct) Virage, Streamsage (now part of Comcast) , Pictron, Podzinger, and others, has been around for years.  

So, Online Video 2.0 is yet to be born - while video is a part of the Web 2.0 ecosystem that generates value from unscripted user behavior on freeform platforms, it's not yet ready to BE one of those freeform platforms.

April 04, 2007

Fundamentals of Website Development - Course Resources

Last night I had the privilege of giving a guest lecture on streaming video in Dave Heitmeyer's Harvard course, Fundamentals of Web Development.  As a follow-up, here are some further information and references on topics that came up in the class.
Anything I forgot..?  Leave me a comment and I'll update this as needed...

March 27, 2007

A Full-Featured Flash Video Player

Flash video is great for users, but the player lacks easy, built-in features Web developers have come to expect.  But now, Jeroen Wijering has developed the full-featured Flash Video Player 3.6 which finally makes all the features of a "real" video player available to Web developers using Flash video on their sites.

The standard video players - RealPlayer, Quicktime and WindowsMedia - all have APIs that help make it easy to embed interactive video onto a Web page.  The major video platforms provided simple run-time customization capabilities that developers have come to expect from video platforms.  By setting values in either the web page or the metafile (.ram, .asx, .qtl), you could accomplish a lot:
  • support for metafiles that can be generated on-the-fly
  • playlists
  • background colors and logos
  • captioning
  • control over the appearance of the player controls
  • fullscreen mode
  • autostart and repeat behavior
Naturally, if you are a Flash developer, you can make a player that handles all of this.  Indeed, unless you're simply hard-coding an .flv URL into the stock Flash video player, you have to do Flash development to make a more capable player.  Jeroen's Flash Video Player 3.6 solves all that.  With an elegant API that works through metafiles or FlashVars, you can customize the playback experience without having to do a lick of Flash development.  What's more, a full Javascript API includes controls (playlist navigation, play/pause, scrub and seek, volume control, and movie loading), Javascript callbacks, and metadata extraction.

This player covers all the important bases in terms of the video player capabilities Web developers need, and makes publishing Flash video as easy as publishing Real, QT or Windows Media.  It's distributed under a Creative Commons License, free for non-commercial use, and nearly free for commercial use.

February 16, 2007

Online Video Industry Index

The folks at Read/WriteWeb have put together a terrific Online Video Industry Index that provides a snapshot of the current online video marketplace.  It's not about hardware or software vendors, like Sorenson, Accordent, or Adobe, but rather sums up the online services space very well.  This list breaks the industry down into categories that include Video Sharing, Video Search, Video Editing & Creation, Video eCommerce, Video Streaming, and others.  

I've been working in this space a lot lately, and have worked with many of the providers on this list, including some as-yet little-known ones.  While the authors disclaim the index as "not complete", to my eye it looks pretty comprehensive.   One useful addition would be Sorenson Media, which is getting into the space with its Squishnet video management service.

This is a great resource. In particular, many of the vendors in this index, as well as being consumer-oriented destinations for video, offer enterprise services and developer APIs that let companies and educational institutions build custom, branded video services on hosted infrastructure. Because of this, the consumer video Web is relevant far beyond the entertainment focus that's driving its growth.

January 12, 2007

Video encoding tools, codec comparison

Which Web video format is the best? Which encoding tool is the best one?  Which tools handle high-action video best?  If part of your job involves encoding digital video for Web delivery, you must read streamingmedia.com's research reports on codecs and encoders.  Some of the key points are summarized in  Jan Ozer's article, Choosing a Codec. Some highlights for me:
  • RealVideo is the best overall codec of all the tested choices, and became the benchmark against the others were compared.
  • Differerent codecs were best at handling each combination of encoding bitrate and content type (e.g. talking head vs. sports video) 
  • Some tools encode some formats and content types exceptionally well, while doing a poor job on others.  
  • VBR (variable bitrate) won't always offer an improvement over CBR (constant bitrate), even for high-motion content. 
The two reports, Proprietary Codecs, 2006: Choosing and Using the Optimal Video Codec and  Flash Codecs, 2006: Choosing and Using the Optimal Flash Codec are, unfortunately, not free,  but they are treasure-troves of information about codecs and encoding software.  I recently bought a copy of each, and plan to site-license them for all the folks involved in encoding digital media at Harvard University, where I'm the University's Multimedia Technology Architect.  

Although I've been a contributing editor to streamingmedia.com and have friends there, I have no financial interest in these reports. I just think there's awfully helpful!

October 19, 2006

Code snippet to embed video in a page

YouTube and its ilk have made embedding video into a web page simple for people who are not developers and HTML gurus.  For institutional video installations like ours at Harvard, it can be just as simple for our users to embed internally hosted video in their course pages, Websites, and blogs.  All you need is to have a small Javascript file that generates the HTML that embeds the player.  This file lives somewhere on your Web server, and people wanting to embed video in their pages simply reference it with a small snippet of HTML they put into their Web page.  Here's a simple snippet of HTML that users can use to generate an embedded video player:
<script src="http://www.learningapi.com/blog/scripts/embedRealVideo.js" type="text/javascript" 
clipUrl=""rtsp://video2.harvard.edu/newsoffc/EOWilson.rm" >

The embedRealVideo.js script generates the EMBED statement that displays the video in the page.  Its source code can easily be modified to support Windows Media or Quicktime plugins as well.  The user embedding video just has to paste the above code snippet into their page, making sure to edit the clipUrl field appropriately.  For this RealPalyer example, that URL can be a direct rtsp:// link, or an http:// link to ramgen or a .ram file.  

Here's the source of the script, embedRealVideo.js: (you may have to remove the line wrapping in the document.write statements for this to work)
var scripts = document.getElementsByTagName('script');
var index = scripts.length - 1;
var myScript = scripts[index];
if (pClipUrl=="") {

document.write('<embed type="audio/x-pn-realaudio-plugin"
width="320" height="240"
controls="ImageWindow" autostart="FALSE" console="Clip1"></embed><br>');
document.write('<embed type="audio/x-pn-realaudio-plugin"
width="320" height="30"
controls="StatusBar" autostart="FALSE" console="Clip1"></embed><br>');
document.write('<embed type="audio/x-pn-realaudio-plugin"
width="320" height="26"
controls="ControlPanel" autostart="FALSE" console="Clip1"></embed>');

December 19, 2005

Time-shifting streaming audio - podcasts the hard way

This week, Jon Udell writes a piece about his efforts to get an archived radio program from the program's web site over to his MP3 player.  Sounds easy enough - that's what podcasting is for.  But in this case, the show, NPR's Fresh Air, has only been made available as streaming audio in Real format.  

Jon's got a workable solution going with shell scripts, mplayer and lame on his Mac OSX system.  His screencast of making it work is terrific.  I've done the same thing - it was my primary use of my iPod even before podcasting was in broad use.  For me, it was trying to listen to a streaming National Public Radio program in the bustle of the workplace that caused me to want to time-shift the interview--record it, slip it over to my iPod, and let it entertain my evening commute.

My process was just about as clunky, but it worked: my streamingmedia.com article on Stream Recorders reviews Streamdown - give it the URL to a SMIL, RAM, or ASX file and it will promptly retrieve all the media files to your desktop.  Then I'd use RM To MP3 Converter from Boilsoft to convert to something my iPod can deal with.  And finally, as the third step, use iTunes to sync the file to the iPod.   For a while, I used RealPlayer to manage my files and synchronization with the iPod. It saved steps, since the RM to MP3 conversion would be handled automatically by RealPlayer. But it seems that iTunes and RealPlayer would end up fighting over control of my iPod and I tired of dealing with it. I returned to using iTunes alone, for its predictability (and despite its dreadful performance).

But Jon's real question in all this was, "am I doing anything wrong" by downloading and recording this audio.  To me, the answer is clear.  Jon's not redistributing the program, he's timeshifting it.  Fair use.  Settled law.  Closed issue.  

December 15, 2005

Managing Video Content  - "Like Netflix, Only Better?"

The Videotools Video Content Management System, which my team developed at Harvard Business School, is a first-place winner of the 9th Annual Process Innovation Award by Kinetic Information.  Videotools was one of six winners in the Innovative Solutions Category (Recognizing Superior Solutions for their Creativity and Effectiveness ).  Specifically, they look for process improvement -- those applications that best exemplify how technology can be used for business benefit.  

A recent Campus Technology article on Digital Libraries by Matt Villano profiled Videotools, introducing it as "Like Netflix, Only Better."  It's flattering, even if that's a bit of a stretch!  But, Videotools does make an impact on the institution, by providing three services:
  • Managing and automating the encoding, metadata extraction and collection, and publishing of digital video in various (and multiple) formats and bitrates.
  • Managing permissions, roles and collections, and providing users with a video and media portal where they can search, organize, and share video content.
  • Providing delivery management that allows a unique URL for each video clip which applies rulesets to seamlessly determine a user's permission to view a video, detect their network location and preferred format/bitrate/size, and generates a metafile (.ram, .asx, etc) that gets the right video to the user quickly. (i.e. The same URL that  opens a 1.5Mbps RealVideo at full-screen when accessed from a classroom may provide 300kbps Real SureStream or 250kbps Flash video via http when accessed from home.)
More information about how we designed and built Videotools, along with our  philosophy of how to think about these kinds of projects, can be found in:

February 02, 2005

New Online Community of Practice and E-Conference

Democracies Online Newswire has just launched a public forum for folks involved with multimedia technologies in the service of the public interest.  From their site:
Join our new online exchange, Webcasting and Multimedia in the Public Sector, dedicated to sharing experiences, ideas, and "how-to" knowledge among those leading the way (or catching up) with public sector webcasting. It is sponsored by the UK Local E- democracy National Project which is funded by the UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
As a Wiki site, it's still a little lean on content, although there are placeholder pages for some great upcoming content  (for example, the Enhanced Webcasting Specification and the page with links comparing webcasting format options).  But it does have some cool links already, such as: 

In short, the Minnesota House of Representatives provides contextual links and content within a special window that includes the video. While it is built on top of the database driven legislative document system, it illustrates how any local council might connect a content management system with public meeting documents (agendas, handouts, etc.) with both their live and archived video streaming.

Posted by larryb at 04:04 PM [permanent link]
Category: Streaming Media

April 29, 2004

Bandwidth Simulator for Streaming Media Testing

How do you effectively test the way streaming media sites will appear to people on modems, DSL, cable and other varied Internet connections?  My piece, A Bandwidth Simulator for Testing Streaming Media addresses this, and elicited this comment from a reader:

While netlimiter looks like an interesting tool, I find it easy to test the various stream rates of Real and Windows Media multibit rate streams by changing the connection settings in Real or Windows Media Player. For RealOne Player Tools>Preferences>Connection and for Windows Media Player 9 Tools>Options>Performance. From what I've experienced, adjusting the settings does a pretty good job of simulating low-bandwidth connections.

This is a useful way to test the low-bandwidth content itself, but it isn't really limiting bandwidth - it's just a simulation.  Instead, Netlimiter tests the ability of the entire Web environment -- which includes the browser, the media player, the media server, and any code you have running in any of those places -- to adapt to actual (not simulated) changing bandwidth at the "last mile".  It's not as good a test as actually dialing up with AOL from somewhere where touch-tone phones are still a novelty - but it's a more accurate simulation than using media player preferences.

March 04, 2004

VCRs for streaming media

This week's entry on streamingmedia.com - a review of two products for recording streams - VCRs for Streaming.  This may be a controversial topic, as evidenced by RealNetworks'  lawsuit against StreamBox. That was settled out of court in September 2000 when StreamBox backed off and killed its "Ripper" and "VCR" products.  Neither of the companies in the article responded to requests to be interviewed for this article.  Keeping a low profile, I guess.

Still, if recording off the radio is legal, and my home VCR and PVR are legal, then there's no reason for stream recorders to be anything less.  These two utilities are rough around the edges, but they get the job done. 

Streaming media is a great way to receive multimedia over the Internet. But it doesn't help you much when you're on a plane, in traffic, or sitting in your ice-fishing hut in Minnesota. There's help available - StreamDown and SDP are utilities that can record streaming media programs, letting you watch or listen at your convenience.

February 25, 2004

All the many MPEGs - from MPEG1 to MPEG21

From streamingmedia.com this week, trying to make some sense out of the many MPEG standards:

There's more to MPEG than just audio and video compression. There are five MPEG standards–MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, MPEG7, and MPEG21–spanning all aspects of compressing, authoring, identifying, and delivering multimedia. Here's a quick look at each one and where it fits in the digital media landscape.

February 11, 2004

Screen recording for fun and profit

For producing streaming media demos and training materials, as well as traditional MS Powerpoint/OpenOffice Impress-style slideshows, there's nothing as elegant and simple as screen recording technology.  Using special lossless codecs, you can get a perfect reproduction of your computer screen (or a portion of it) in less than 40kbps, less than 8kbps if it's as simple as just flipping among slides.   In two pieces on streamingmedia.com, I take a look first at Screen Recording technology in general, along with a brief overview of TechSmith's Camtasia and follow up with a review of OPTx's Screenwatch

In a nutshell, these are two tools that do more-or-less the same thing, but for very different kinds of users.  Camtasia is a great tool for the individual creator doing one-offs, while Screenwatch is an industrial-strength product for creating a scalable process in educational institutions and enterprises.

February 10, 2004

A streaming report on Acacia and streaming

They're still at it. Our friends at Acacia still claim to own the patent rights to all digital media delivery, including streaming. This story from NPR notes that spurious patents abound, and that this one continues a growing tradition of counter-constitutional patents being awarded and enforced. It also notes Acacia's strong-arm tactics in going after companies that won't (or can't) defend themselves against a claim, no matter how frivolous.

Posted by larryb at 05:23 AM [permanent link]
Category: Streaming Media

January 23, 2004

Patently Absurd - Acacia claims ownership of all digital media

Patently Absurd - that's the title of Dan Rayburn's piece this week on StreamingMedia.com. 

California-based holding company Acacia Research claims they hold patents on streaming, downloading and just about every form of digital audio and video distribution out there--including pushing MP3s from peer-to-peer groups, streaming newscasts from Internet radio sites and delivering movies through cable networks.

Acadia's approach has been to go first after adult content companies and internet radio stations, but they are starting to send nasty-grams to Fortune 1000 companies as well.  You might think it's ridiculous, and it is.  Just like SCO's lawsuits against everyone they can think of in their claims that Linux is a) theirs; b) bad; c) a threat to national security; d) unconstitutional.  They are ridiculous but they are still a threat that needs to be faced and dealt with.  Pretending they do not exist will not  make them go away. 

Acacia is currently in litigation over the matter with several adult content Internet companies, many of which are fighting back and have banded together to form the Internet Media Protective Association (IMPA) and FightThePatent.com.

What should the industry response to Acacia's actions be and what options does a company have that has received a letter? For starters, alert everyone in your company, and anyone in the industry who does not know and should, about Acacia's tactics. Education is the first step. If you have received a letter from Acacia or know of a company that has, please have them go to www.streamingmedia.com/patent. We have created an online resource where you can get detailed information on Acacia, with links to the patents, prior court documents, contact information for the patent lawyers, copies of letters companies have received and other information you may need.

Posted by larryb at 11:33 AM [permanent link]
Category: Streaming Media

January 16, 2004

Scalable streaming video encoding

Encoding hundreds of hours streaming video from a conference or other major event can be a monumental task that takes  months to accomplish.  But attendees want to have the proceedings available within days of the event, not months.  That was the problem the folks handling the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference had to solve. 

Jim Baker writes a great (and finely detailed) piece on DV.com about the enterprise-scale encoding farm they built for the WWDC.  When you talk about scalability, one-off oriented desktop encoding solutions break down and new workflow processes and tools are needed.   With the scalable process Baker's team developed, they reduced the total encoding time for the conference from last year's three months to a blazing-fast two weeks. 

Posted by larryb at 06:44 AM [permanent link]
Category: Streaming Media

September 16, 2003

Microsoft's WM9 strategy

The big news last week is that Microsoft has submitted WM9 codec specification to SMPTE for consideration as a standard.  It's all over the press, including my own article on StreamingMedia.com, Microsoft Opens Windows Media 9 Codec to SMPTE.  Stefanie Olsen also writes a great and informative piece on the topic at ZDnet. 

The surprising addition to the news and perspective came via Good Morning Silicon Valley yesterday:

HomeTheaterHiFi.com reports that Redmond is plotting an end run around the consumer tech industry that may bring HD-DVD to market within months and in the process make Windows Media 9 video format the standard for HD-DVD media, set-top boxes, and video-editing systems.

What's interesting here is the way it suggests that Microsoft's submission to SMPTE is not a big change in strategy, but may be what was planned all along.  First, develop technology that offers something of value to the motion picture and broadcast industries; then seed the marketplace with a bit of it here and there (the T2 DVD, Sigma chip designs).  Then, when the market value is demonstrated and there's some product on the shelves, submit it as a standard to "grease the wheels" of further adoption. 

In the article, Tod DeBie notes that WM9 can get HDTV DVDs and other media into the market sooner and better than standards-body driven alternatives, which are still tied up in process.  If WM9 does it faster and better, and MS has opened the technology to SMPTE, then industry adoption just might take off. 

Finally, Tod says this:

There are many possibilities for Microsoft here, and considering their obvious commitment to video quality, the results are bound to be good for the consumer.

I'm not certain that Microsoft dominance over its markets is ever particularly good for the consumer in the long run.  For that matter, neither is anyone's total dominance over any market.  WM9 is great technology, but codec technology is a very fickle thing. Competing technologies leapfrog each other regularly, with the "best" codec only remaining "best" for a short while before having its title taken away by the competition. I only hope that the decisions and deals made in the next few months by the consumer electronics and broadcast industries are based on solid long-term business strategy. Whatever they choose, they (and we) will have to live with for a very long time.

August 28, 2003

SMIL for professional video production

The usual method of video production is "destructive", which means that when you're done editing, compositing, "effecting", and synchronizing your media elements, you haven't preserved continuity with  the original source materials.  You've made something new and separate from the original source. What's more, the only descriptive path between the two is, at best, the proprietary EDL format from your editing system of choice. 

This isn't a huge problem in itself - we're used to that just being the way it is.  But with all the media increasingly available on the network, is there a way to do more editing, compositing, "effecting", and synchronizing by reference rather than destuctively?  What efficiencies will this enable in the creation, delivery and consumer usage of complex media content?

Well, Sony is driving an effort to examine whether SMIL has a role in professional video production.  From the W3C Note on SMIL 2.0 Extension for Professional Multimedia Authoring:

Most of the professional content production environment has been replaced with digital systems and networked with each other. Some of the consumer environment has also already been replaced with digital systems for quite a number of regional services. Such change grows expectations that both content production and delivery can be connected seamlessly from professional systems to consumer systems.

August 05, 2003

Helix puts (grant) money where its mouth is

RealNetworks just announced the Helix Community Grant Program.  Real is giving away $75,000 this year in grant money to support research and development in basic digital media technology as well as functional extensions to streaming media delivery systems.  The projects with the best chances will be the ones that fertilize the digital media ecosystem, have open-source appeal, and have some conceivable future commercial application. 

The open-source Helix Community has already brought in a legion of contributors, many from companies with commercial interests in the Helix platform.  This effort tries to bring more of the best creative energy into the Helix ecosystem by funding the best academic- and research-oriented ideas which might otherwise go undone or unknown.
In Helix's own words:

Enhancing our efforts to build the first open multi-format platform for digital media delivery, the Helix Community Grant Program will support the most promising innovations from developers and the global research community.

The grant program will ensure the Helix DNA platform incorporates cutting edge research advances and has the widest extensibility. This program welcomes ground-breaking research proposals, inventive implementations and creative project ideas from independent developers, the academic and research communities or any non-profit or commercial enterprise engaged in digital media research and development.

July 23, 2003

My new gig at streamingmedia.com

As of this week, I've become a Contributing Editor at streamingmedia.com.  I'll be writing an almost-weekly column on technical topics related to streaming media.  Some of what I cover will be advanced techniques and code, but I'll also spend some time talking about the basics.  After all, advanced stuff is cool, but the basics apply to each and every project.  

The first piece appeared today - Streaming vs. Downloading Video: Choosing The Right Solution.  Future topics will include how-to's, product reviews, and discussion of technical happenings in the world of streaming media.  If you have any suggestions for topics you'd like to read about, please send 'em my way.

Posted by larryb at 01:05 PM [permanent link] | Comments (1)
Category: Streaming Media

July 16, 2003

Happy Birthday to SMIL!

The SMIL language just had its 5th birthday!  On June 15, 1998 SMIL 1.0 became a W3C recommendation.  I have fond memories of that, since it was the SMIL tutorial article, Synchronized Multimedia On The Web, that was my first published article.  If you haven't seen the example presentation, What I did Last Summer..., you should take a look some of the neat tricks SMIL (even the old 1.0) makes possible.  But with respect to SMIL's birthday, Philip Hoschka from the W3C pointed out a few notable notes:
Of these, I think the MPEG4/XMT connection is perhaps the most important for the continued growth and influence of SMIL in the communications industry.

Some cool SMIL 2.0 examples can be found at the French National Research Institute INRIA's site.  INRIA also is the source of the LimSee2 SMIL authoring tool.  I've been meaning to give that a try...

July 07, 2003

Licensing your video content - digital copyright and the Creative Commons

Addition (October 19, 2003) - I've just posted my new tutorial article entitled Creative Commons Licensing For Digital Media (audio and video) on streamingmedia.com. How-to, and why-to use CC for your audio and video projects.

These days, just about everyone that creates content is concerned about copyright.  Likewise, content creators and consumers alike know that copyright is as much about allowing use of content as it is about restricting it.  After all, there's not much use in publishing your stuff if no one's allowed to make use of it (RIAA/MPAA, take notice)!  The Creative Commons, a project of Stanford Law School, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and others, aims to help.  From the CC website:

Creative Commons has developed a Web application that helps people dedicate their creative works to the public domain -- or retain their copyright while licensing them as free for certain uses, on certain conditions. ... Creative Commons licenses are not designed for software, but rather for other kinds of creative works: websites, scholarship, music, film, photography, literature, courseware, etc.  [more explanation of licenses]

While initially developed for Web pages, Creative Commons licenses can now be tagged to MP3 files.  The CC technique not only tags content with an approriate license, but it also provides a way to drive traffic to the content creator's website.  The technique here can easily be applied to video and audio content encoded using RealNetworks, Windows Media, or QuickTime tools.  There's never been a better way to both protect copyright and advertise public access to digital video.  And there's no excuse not to do it. Protect your content, empower your viewers, and contribute to the success of CC...all at once!

July 03, 2003

Good thing someone still has the "Freedom to Tinker"

Personal video publishing is coming alive from some unexpected directions.  April's issue of QST Magazine, the official Journal of the ARRL ("ham" radio's official governing organization), includes this piece [1.2MB pdf file] on multimedia communication via wireless ham radio networks.  In the age-old (and honorable) amateur radio tradition of modifying commerical communications equipment for experimental and innovative purposes, these folks are using 802.11 wireless gear to set up the High Speed Multimedia Network - enabling freestanding video communications networks across wide areas.  

Posted by larryb at 10:59 AM [permanent link]
Category: Streaming Media

July 02, 2003

Streaming rivals cable?

On the anything-but-personal publishing front....In a new report entitled Online Video Advertising, Jupiter Research finds that major streaming content sites are drawing as many program viewers (and advertising viewers) in a day as a typical cable TV program.

"Although many marketers think the audience for online video is too small, that audience has grown quickly in recent years. Top online video sites regularly attract three to eight million viewers per week and deliver five to 30 million video ads per week. Those audience numbers are comparable with those of the top syndicated and cable TV shows, which draw five to 10 million households per week."

Still, advertiser spending on streaming video ads is still a tiny percentage of total online ad sales.  This is bound to grow slowly as advertiser assumptions about audience size and streaming video quality become more favorable.  How will Web users react?  Mozilla already has a "Block images from this server" feature that kills ads dead on many pages.  On the other hand, salon.com successfully "sells" a Free Day Pass to their site in exchange for viewing an ad on your way in from the vestibule to the quality content you want access to - one ad for the whole day.  Ads don't always turn people off - they only do when they are obtrusive, annoying, insulting or utterly irrelevant.  The growth of online video advertising will depend on one of two things: either the advertisers' ability to force you to view; or their ability to make you happily willing to.

Posted by larryb at 06:20 PM [permanent link]
Category: Streaming Media

June 24, 2003

Digital Dialogues Indeed

In my search for examples of the technology, the people and the content that will make personal video publishing work in the real world, I came across this gem from Aisling Kelliher at the MIT Media Lab Interactive Cinema Group.  The content on here is a mix of interesting (even captivating), but not necessarily related, personal projects.  Following the link buried in this post led to a very focused weblog chronicling MIT's Digital Dialogues conference.  You can spend some time exploring here!

June 08, 2003

Does the industry need a vendor-neutral synchronized multimedia format?

Over the last few years, I've become increasingly aware of the almost endless different ways of authoring and delivering synchronized multimedia presentations -- you know, the talking head with sync'd slides and a table of contents, transcript -- that type of thing.  Along with the varying different methods of implementing such a presentation, (which include various combinations of SMIL1.0, SMIL2.0 Flash, Quicktime, WindowsMedia with embedded events, WindowsMedia HTML+TIME, RealVideo with RMEvents, Java, Javascript, Screenwatch and others), there are countless desktop tools and web tools from dozens of vendors that all facilitate authoring and delivery of these kinds of presentations.  

Of course, one problem with this scenario is that content authored using one platform or toolset cannot be easily, if ever, ported to others, or updated to keep up with ever-changing client-side technology and competing de-facto "standards".  Of course, if the shelf-life of the content is short, this may not be a problem.  But if you need the material to be around for a while, or you need to publish to multiple standards and formats on your own terms (not your vendor's), or you want control and portability as a matter of principle and business strategy, you're apparently out of luck in today's marketplace.  I think this is why, even with a bazillion vendor solutions out there, there are so many homegrown solutions to this problem.  Companies want and need control over how their content is stored and delivered.

My question is this: is there a standard in the works anywhere that creates, essentially, a vendor-neutral and implementation-neutral way to represent the content of synchronized multimedia presentations.  A simple XML markup could represent the video and audio sources, slide sources and timings, and basic table-of-contents information.  It could also include descriptions of basic polling or feedback elements, as well as other kinds of presentation elements.  Basically, it would be an interchange format that various vendors' platforms would be able to import and export.  It would be simple enough to write by hand if you wanted to.  

I understand that SMIL 2.0 is capable of this and much more, but it's more of an authoring language with an explicit implementation in mind.  It's much deeper than just a content description language, although a subset of it might be appropriate for this purpose.   Other initiatives along these lines that I'm aware of include the W3C's Timed Text Format, various metadata efforts through ViDe, and more specific standardization efforts by groups like DigitalWell.org, and ISMA .

So...is there a demand for such a thing?  Is there one in the works?  If we built it, would anybody come?  Thoughts?
Posted by larryb at 11:07 AM [permanent link]
Category: Streaming Media

June 03, 2003

The future of media publishing - personal or commerical

At Harvard Business School's recent colloquium -
"The Bandwidth Explosion - Living and Working in a Broadband World"
, Eric Schmidt of Google and Rob Glaser of RealNetworks debated the future of media publishing in a world of more and cheaper broadband.

Broadband will drive the self-publishing of video and audio, expects Schmidt. That view explains their recent purchase of Pyra Labs (maker of Blogger), which was met with skepticism by many commentators. (Some others see it as a good fit. ) Traditional Big Media and Big Software will try very hard to kill standard, open formats for video and audio. According to Schmidt, unless they succeed, self-published "multimedia blogs" will one day rule.

Glaser's RealNetworks, with the hard evidence of over 1M subscribers paying a monthly fee to access CNN, ABCNewsLive, Major League Baseball, and other traditional content, sees more and more traditional media showing up on the Web. Metadata and searching is the power of the new paradigm. Is the ability to search rich metadata and random access to well-targeted content enough?

Or is TiVo on track to be the new RealONE Superpass (on-demand, random access to all the traditional media you want) while personal publishing rules in the Web world?

It certainly was interesting to participate and hear the differing opinions of Schmidt, Glaser, and the other industry luminaries that took part in the colloquium. Thanks go to HBS Profs Rob Austin and Steve Bradley for an excellent event.