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Top 20 Streaming Technologies of the Last 20 Years
It's our 20th anniversary, and so we're taking a look back at the 20 technologies that have dominated—and sometimes frustrated—the streaming media industry over the past 20 years.
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Standards are important, but sometimes standards bodies move slower than the pace of innovation. The streaming industry can respond to this in one of two ways: Wait until a standard is ratified, or use a technology that solves a short-term problem,  hoping the technology itself becomes adopted widely enough to become a de facto standard.

We asked survey respondents to rank the top 20 technologies from a list of more than 30. The following technologies rose to the top of overall responses when judged in terms of their impact on the streaming media industry.

The Top of the Top 20

The following technologies received voting at a threshold above 50% of the overall vote. Unless otherwise indicated, the definitions come from the Streaming Media Glossary.

FFmpeg

Percentage vote: 100%

Definition. FFmpeg’s website calls it “a complete, cross-platform solution to record, convert, and stream audio and video,” which pretty much sums it up. The intent of FFmpeg is to provide encoding, transcoding, and decoding of a variety of media content in various codecs. The original FFmpeg also included a server version, ffserver, but it was dropped when it was deemed too “hard for users to deploy and run due to reliability issues, lack of knowledgeable people to help and confusing configuration file syntax,” according to developers.

Why it matters. The success of FFmpeg cannot be understated, and FFmpeg was the only technology to receive a unanimous vote. As more and more codecs are integrated into FFmpeg, the entire digital media industry moves closer to an open-source encoding and transcoding solution that is robust and universally accepted. For instance, version 3.3 “Hilbert” includes the Apple Pixlet decoder and NewTek SpeedHQ decoder, two proprietary codecs that had been kept at arm’s length from the industry as part of the proprietary push by each company to own its portion of the video production ecosystem, and version 3.4 “Cantor” includes a NewTek NDI interface connector and spec compliant VP9 muxing support in MP4.

QuickTime (QT) and QT Player

Percentage vote: 86%

Definition. A proprietary media technology developed by Apple, including both a container format (.MOV) and a multi-codec player that could play a number of the key codecs and container formats of the day. Apple developed the QuickTime Player to play back content encoded with QuickTime-compliant codecs, and the QuickTime Player was the first to introduce native H.264 support.

Why it matters. Well before streaming started, Apple was championing progressive downloads. Given the large number of codecs in the industry, though, Apple needed a way to approve the various codecs that are approved for use in encoding and decoding. Multimedia content authors knew they could confidently choose any of the codecs supported by QuickTime for a variety of reasons (e.g., animation, full-motion video, talking heads, etc.). QuickTime expanded to provide interactive elements and became the basis of both the ISO Base Media File Format (MP4) and the MPEG-4 System standard. In recent years, Apple has de-emphasized QuickTime Player in favor of the embedded player found in iOS devices, with recent work on QuickTime Player for Mac OSX leveraging lessons from the iOS media player.

Flash (Macromedia Shockwave)

Percentage vote: 71%

Definition. A vector-based animation and interaction format released by Macromedia, often used for narrative productions on the web, but also includes the ability to embed data structures, including video. Once called Shockwave, Flash is now developed by Adobe as a result of the company acquiring Macromedia.

Why it matters. While the MPEG-4 System faltered, Flash offered a robust authoring solution that had interactivity at its core. As such, it was easier to disengage Flash from Macromedia Director—used for interactive learning kiosks as well as CD/DVD authoring—when the lure of web-based interactivity began to rear its head.

Media Servers

Percentage vote: 71%

Definition. A computer designated as a server is located between the network core and a user's edge device, often referred to as a client device. The server is tasked with delivering content to clients through the use of specialized software, ranging from printing and file storage to streaming media delivery.

Why it matters. For the streaming industry, media servers handle a variety of tasks: transcoding (re-encoding for a different codec), transrating (changing the data rate and/or resolution), and repackaging (reformatting for delivery to mobile, desktop, and other devices). Those tasks used to require servers that manipulated streaming-specific protocols (e.g., RTSP, RTMP). With the advent of longer-latency, HTTP-based, small-segment streaming delivery—much of which is served from a standard HTTP server—the primary reasons for using a streaming media server often center on lower latencies. 

Flash Player (Shockwave Player)

Percentage vote: 71%

Definition. Flash Player is an Adobe plugin that allows Flash content and Flash Video to be played within a compatible mobile or desktop web browser. Flash Player capabilities are also included in AIR, the Adobe Integrated Runtime.

Why it matters. Shockwave Player, originally used by Macromedia to allow simple interactive games online, was key to Adobe’s online video growth. The renamed Flash Player added support for several video codecs, including H.264 (aka Advanced Video Coding or MPEG-4 Part 10), even though Flash Player still required proprietary extensions such as F4V and FMV. Flash Player, as a plugin for various web browsers, has had a much longer run than almost anyone anticipated, but as Steve Jobs famously stated, when choosing not to include native Flash Player support in the iOS devices, it was time for Adobe to “focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.”

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Percentage vote: 57%

Definition. Almost everyone agrees with a portion of this simplified definition found at TechTarget: “Digital rights management (DRM) is a systematic approach to copyright protection for digital media.” But even that is up for debate, depending on how libertarian your views on copyright are, turning this technology into a highly politicized group of access controls designed to prevent copying, to limit content access to a particular time period, or to limit consumption to a particular number of devices. On one hand, there’s a feeling that “[t]he purpose of DRM is to prevent unauthorized redistribution of digital media and restrict the ways consumers can copy content they've purchased,” noted TechTarget. On the other hand, there’s the feeling that, as the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) writes, “DRM technologies attempt to control what you can and can't do with the media and hardware you've purchased.”

Why it matters. If you’re a copyright owner, it matters because you’re more likely to agree with TechTarget that “DRM products were developed in response to the rapid increase in online piracy of commercially marketed material, which proliferated through the widespread use of peer-to-peer file exchange programs.” On the other hand, the more libertarian consumer of DRM-protected media might side with the EFF’s assessment that “Corporations claim that DRM is necessary to fight copyright infringement online and keep consumers safe from viruses. But there's no evidence that DRM helps fight either of those. … Fans shouldn't be treated like criminals, and companies shouldn't get an automatic veto over user choice and innovation.”

Windows Media codecs (WMA, WMV)

Percentage vote: 57%

Definition. Windows Media is Microsoft's proprietary legacy media format that housed audio, video, and metadata. Windows Media Player (WMP) is a multi-format video player that was initially developed by Microsoft for use with Microsoft-specific formats (e.g., WMA, WMV, WAV). WMP houses both a media player and a media library application.

Why it matters. The most recent versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system, Windows 8 and Windows 10, have a version of WMP, but the embedded version of Windows 8 (Windows RT) does not use WMP. Microsoft has deprecated the Windows Media Server in favor of integrating the services into its standard Windows Server, with Microsoft IIS Media Services 4.0 (released in 2011) following the lifecycle of Windows Server 2008, but support for legacy formats will continue for the foreseeable future. Microsoft has also deprecated its proprietary encoders, such as the Windows Media Encoder 9 series, in favor of H.264 encoding, but even the Expression series of encoders is also being deprecated with the end of support of Microsoft Silverlight.

Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3)

Percentage vote: 57%

Definition. According to the Amazon S3 website, “Amazon Simple Storage Service is storage for the Internet. … S3 has a simple web services interface that you can use to store and retrieve any amount of data, at any time, from anywhere on the web. It gives any developer access to the same highly scalable, reliable, fast, inexpensive data storage infrastructure that Amazon uses to run its own global network of web sites. The service aims to maximize benefits of scale and to pass those benefits on to developers.”

Why it matters. Amazon S3 allows traditional web interfacing for file storage, including files that can be streamed using HTTP-based segmented file streaming. But S3 also allows more innovative peer-to-peer distribution using BitTorrent clients. “The costs of client/server distribution increase linearly as the number of users downloading objects increases, [which] can make it expensive to distribute popular objects,” says the S3 website. “BitTorrent addresses this problem by recruiting the very clients that are downloading the object as distributors themselves: Each client downloads some pieces of the object from Amazon S3 and some from other clients, while simultaneously uploading pieces of the same object to other interested ‘peers.’ The benefit for publishers is that for large, popular files the amount of data actually supplied by Amazon S3 can be substantially lower than what it would have been serving the same clients via client/server download.”