Commentary: Are We There Yet?

Almost a decade ago, I made a decision that has had lasting repercussions: In the middle of working on an MBA in entrepreneurship, I decided to launch a startup production company with a few film school buddies. Despite looking like a really stupid financial decision—cutting off the day job while continuing to take classes and having to raise money to cover business startup costs—it was successful in several ways. First, I got to understand this entrepreneurship thing firsthand; second, I was having fun doing work I enjoyed; and third, I found this new technology called "streaming" that really intrigued me. Little did I know that consulting to end users and product manufacturers about that technology would one day constitute a large portion of my income.

Streaming in those days was still new, very much hyped and always somewhat unpredictable, which added to the fun. But the goal in those early days also was a bit more audacious than what it came to be a few years later. Instead of "creating a streaming industry"—the rallying cry in the 1999-2000 timeframe--the goal of the early players was nothing short of revolutionizing the world.

I’m not pining for the "good old days"—quite the opposite, in fact. Streaming acquisition and delivery technologies have become much more stable during the two years that I’ve been on consulting hiatus to teach streaming technologies and technology-business start-up principles to undergraduate students.

But it makes good business sense to shoot for the revolutionary model rather than the industry model. The revolutionary model is best implemented by focusing on verticals that will assimilate streaming rather than on building a streaming industry unto itself. We’ve tried the industry model for the last five years and, despite the promise of financial and time-saving benefits, ubiquitous use of streaming still remains an elusive goal.

Why is this the case? I see three basic reasons:

1. Streaming has not reached the point where it is considered an integral tool rather than an interesting but cursory technology to be used on occasion. In its defense, streaming has moved through the classic hype-to-reality curve faster than preceding technologies such as videoconferencing. The hype surrounding the technology far outweighed its initial actual benefit, and only after many early adopters left the technology for dead did it actually begin, silently, to grow into its true potential. But streaming has not yet reached the other end of the hype-to-reality curve, even though it was on track to do so by mid-2002. To put it more bluntly, the "killer application" that would validate the need for a streaming "industry" does not exist.

2. The tools that exist, with a few notable exceptions, require the end user to change workflow or modify behaviors to fit the tool. Of course, not all technologies fit within the business process, but many technology companies expect their customer base to conform its workflow to the company’s products. ("All you have to do is enter these three pieces of information, find the location where the final file should be placed on the server, and enter these two passwords. Then you can record your class lecture.") Don’t laugh; we all know these products exist.

3. Streaming is still steeped in the metaphors of video/film production and broadcast methods. While beneficial in differentiating streaming from videoconferencing, the film approach limits the imagination of streaming product developers, executives, and even consultants. One industry leader recently summed it up this way: "What has been missing are ‘genuine’ apps (killer or otherwise) that can integrate the power of the Web with compressed video and interactivity. Webcasting takes a three-inch leap in a mile-long run toward that sort of thinking."

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