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When it Comes to Streaming Video, We Are Only At the Beginning
We're coming up on the third decade of streaming video, but we've only begun to tap into its potential, and its data-based nature gives it an advantage over broadcast in the long run.
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Kevin Kelly, founder and former editor of Wired, recently asserted that even though the internet is more than 30 years old, we're only at the beginning of realizing the opportunities and technologies it enables. And that got me thinking about streaming video.

When we compare streaming video with broadcast television, we see that the two are worlds apart. Watching video delivered over a broadcast network is significantly different from watching video delivered over the internet. But that's not a bad thing at all. Before I explain why, let me cover the gaps.

The first gap is the consistency of quality. There's no doubt that broadcast offers a higher degree of consistent quality than streaming video does. That's no surprise; streaming video competes with video game downloads, website browsing, and myriad other online activities (such as machine-to-machine communication) that gum up the works. Combine that with a host of other issues, such as local network connectivity and device hardware, and the quality of a streaming video can drop significantly. This resulted in the technological development of adaptive bitrate—delivery of a lower-quality stream appropriate to bandwidth and other end-user environment variables. There's no need for that with broadcast.

The second gap is quality of service/experience. Most traditional TV is consumed in the home by way of a set-top box, an appliance owned by the cable operator that enables the decoding and playback of video content. Operators can see each of these boxes, enabling them to troubleshoot issues as, or even before, they happen. They can see through the network, end-to-end. That can't be done with streaming video. Although there are quality-of-experience providers (such as Conviva and Nice People at Work), there is no clear path between content origin and the end-user's player. What's more, there's no such thing as a standard implementation. One provider's player may have such a mechanism, while another's may not.

The third gap is buffering. Back in the day, when broadcast television was provided over the air, consumers had to deal with static—interruptions in the signal that degraded quality. But with the advent of cable operators (and fixed coaxial lines to every home), that has disappeared. For the most part, TV is now without such interruptions. Not so for streaming video. As others have pointed out, buffering is the static of our times.

Yes, the experiences of traditional TV and streaming video differ right now. Video provided over the internet is not yet “broadcast quality.” But online video has also opened up new doorways. For example, when video is streamed over the nternet, it's just data. It's not a broadcast signal. The combination of that video data with information about it (i.e., metadata) enables content providers such as Netflix and Amazon to connect it with user information, to provide recommendations that make content discovery easier. And online video can be delivered to any device that can make an HTTP connection. It doesn't require specialized hardware, such as a set-top box, to receive a signal and decode it. That means that video can become part of other experiences, such as being embedded in social media. (Twitter's recent announcements with the NHL and MLB offer a great example of merging the two experiences.)

And these differences are what actually make streaming video so amazing. They represent countless opportunities for new innovation and technologies, countless opportunities to shape the television experience.

Will these differences be resolved tomorrow? Next year? Ten years from now? I don't know. But when they are, you can be sure there will be other challenges to overcome as the industry heads toward a future when streaming, not broadcast, is the method by which video is distributed and consumed.

Just as Kevin Kelly says about the internet, streaming media is only in its infancy, full of promise and potential.

[This column appears in the September 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Future in Focus: When it Comes to Streaming Video, We Are Only at the Beginning"