What’s the Installed Base of Plug-Ins?

Probably the biggest fear faced by anyone deploying a new streaming technology is that potential viewers will walk away rather than load a new plug-in. However, the extent of that risk relates to the content being distributed. For example, if viewers want to watch Desperate Housewives or need to view their latest biology lecture, they’ll download the plug-in. On the other hand, if your video is titled “The Top Five Reasons to Buy Our Widget,” the risk is much more real.

No matter what your content, before choosing a technology you should know the installed base of compatible plug-ins. So while researching this story, I asked each company to specify just that. Adobe stated, “Dynamic Steaming requires Flash Player 10 or later. As of March 2009, Flash Player 10 is at 74% penetration.” According to third-party reports (sponsored by Adobe), Flash Player 9 was at 98.9% penetration as of the same date. In my view, given the vast quantity of Flash content on the internet and the historical penetration and adoption of the player, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of these users would upgrade to the next Flash version if necessary for dynamic streaming.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Microsoft introduced Smooth Streaming for Silverlight in late 2008, but it had already used the technology to deliver the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Here’s a demo page for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Microsoft responded, “Silverlight has been downloaded and installed on more than 400 million consumer PCs. Currently, 1 in 3 consumers worldwide have access to a computer with Silverlight technology already installed.” According to the latest statistics from Gartner, Inc., there are about 1.2 billion computers in the world, which puts Microsoft at around 33% penetration. Note that this is for all installed Silverlight players, including v1, which doesn’t support smooth streaming. But again, once viewers download one version of Silverlight, they’ll likely upgrade if necessary to view additional Silverlight content.

Move Networks reported 70 million total installations, with 100,000 downloads a day. Based upon the 70 million number, the installed base is around 5.8%.

Apple’s announcement was more recent (June 2009), and though distribution for iPhones seems straightforward (adaptive bitrate streaming is supported in iPhone OS 3.0), the strategy for general computer playback is murky. It appears that you’ll need the QuickTime X player to view adaptive bitrate streams, and that will only be available in Snow Leopard, the next version of OS X scheduled for release in the summer of 2009. Unfortunately, Apple didn’t respond to my inquiries regarding its new technology, including whether it would be made available for previous versions of OS X or Windows.
Figure 4
Figure 4. In June 2009, Apple joined the party with the anouncement of adaptive bitrate streaming over HTTP for iPhones, as well as in the new QuickTime X, due later this year.

However, according to John Bishop, senior vice president of business development and strategy for Inlet Technologies, who was briefed by Apple, Apple announced no plans for a Windows version of any adaptive-bitrate-streaming-compatible player or a backward-compatible player for previous versions of OS X. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that Apple won’t ship a Windows player next week, but until the company delineates a strategy that will lead to significant penetration within the installed base of Mac and Windows computers, the Apple solution seems relevant primarily for iPhones.

How Does the Technology Fit Within Your Current Video Distribution Platform?

Whatever technology you choose, it’s important to remember that adaptive bitrate streaming is a discrete feature of your total media offering. Certainly, it’s possible to job out the video streaming function entirely, which is the typical strategy used by Move Networks’ clients.

On the other hand, once you commit to a platform—be it Flash, Silverlight, or any other—you invest in the technology and the personnel that create and support it. Perhaps as the adaptive bitrate streaming technologies evolve, significant differences in quality or cost may become apparent. However, even then, any decision relating to adaptive bitrate streaming must also factor in the other unique attributes of the overall platform and the costs of switching from one to another.

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