Meet the Contestants

Who Cares?

One of the most poignant memories from my short fraternity life in college was a meeting in which the chapter president asked, “What are we going to do about member apathy in this fraternity?” One wag responded, “Aw, who cares?” With any technology such as adaptive bitrate streaming, you have to ask the same question.

As streaming media consumers, we all care because, to a degree, these technologies control the number and type of plug-ins that we may have to install to view content. As streaming producers, the vast majority of those using or considering adaptive bitrate streaming are the media and entertainment companies, which use advertising-based models that depend on viewer satisfaction and retention—the happier the viewers, the longer they watch and the more frequently they return.

With YouTube delivering stunning 720p quality today, many other organizations currently distributing SD streams need to consider upgrading to HD, rewarding the high-bitrate consumers while not abandoning those with slower connections. If video is a key component of your marketing, communications, training, or product mix, you need to know about adaptive bitrate streaming.

Meet the Contestants

Multiple companies compete in the adaptive bitrate streaming space, with the first technologies launched back in 1998. Many streaming “gray hairs” remember RealNetworks, Inc.’s SureStream and Microsoft’s multiple bitrate (MBR) technologies, which were the precursors to today’s more recent market entries.

The first to popularize adaptive bitrate streaming in recent times was Move Networks, Inc. The company bundles its adaptive streaming technology within a range of value-added services; current customers include ABC, FOX, ESPN, and Televisa. In May 2008, Adobe announced dynamic streaming, reporting that the new feature was in testing with many major networks. However, the only current nondemo deployment is by the Cannes Film Festival .

Figure 1
Figure 1. Though RealNetworks and Microsoft made multiple bitrate plays in the late 1990s, Move Networks was the first to popularize adaptive bitrate streaming in recent years, with current customers including FOX, ESPN, Televisa, and ABC (shown here).

In late 2008, Microsoft announced Smooth Streaming for Silverlight, which was essentially the productization of the adaptive bitrate streaming technology originally deployed in the 2008 Summer Olympics. More recently, the 2009 French Open was streamed live via Smooth Streaming, though it was unfortunately geoblocked in the U.S. Finally, in June 2009, Apple announced its own adaptive bitrate streaming over HTTP for iPhones and the new QuickTime X.

At a high level, all adaptive bitrate streaming technologies work the same way. That is, you encode the source video file (or live event) to multiple resolutions and data rates and then send the player the first few seconds of video. As it plays, the video player monitors playback-related indicators such as file download time, buffer levels, and CPU utilization to determine if there are any connectivity or playback issues.

For example, if the video buffer isn’t filling at an adequate rate, or the video data takes too long to download, the viewer may run out of data if the video continues at the current quality level. So the player requests a lower-bitrate stream for the next few seconds of video and continues to monitor playback status.

Given the similarity in operation, which technology is best? As always, there is no one-size-fits-all technology, but to identify which is best suited for you, you have to ask yourself several high-level questions.

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