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Commentary: Reflections From A Week At Stanford

Last month, I spent the last week teaching several courses on streaming media production and encoding at the lovely Stanford Campus at Palo Alto. Other than a quick sneak peak at the new Final Cut Studio, which you can read about here, it was pretty much full immersion into the streaming world from a user’s perspective. This led to several conclusions that I thought I would share.

The first observation came to me when I was explaining low level H.264 encoding parameters to the class – specifically, that many of the students would never really need to know these, or VP6 or WMV encoding parameters, at least not for much longer. This related to multiple trends.

The emergence of user-generated video (UGC) and online video platform (OVP) vendors as streaming providers for small to medium sized companies.
Five years ago, small to mid-sized companies who wanted to stream video from their web sites needed to encode the video, create a player and hope that whichever site they served it from could handle the hoped for high volume of viewers. They also had to chase eyeballs on their own.

Today, a small company in the same position should just upload the video to YouTube or Vimeo, or, for better service and analytics, OVP vendors like Ooyala, Brightcove, and Sorenson 360. Then they’ll use codes provided by these vendors to embed the videos in their own web site, like I do on my blog, Streaminglearningcenter.com (for background on Online Video Platforms, see Choosing an Online Video Platform).

If you go this route, you won’t even know what format your vendor is using, and you probably won’t care, so long as the video looks good and plays back in the Flash player virtually all of these technologies use. You’ll get a better player than you could produce yourself, complete with full screen options, embed codes, email links, and a better delivery network than your local ISP. If you opt to upload to multiple UGC sites, like blip.tv, YouTube, Vimeo and Google Video – and why wouldn’t you? – they can even help get more eyeballs for your videos. Either way, you won’t have to know the optimal setting for key frames, B-frames or reference frames, or how to create a player, you’ll simply entrust your service provider to set them for you.

The emergence of H.264 as the de facto standard.
Codec-specific knowledge will also become less valuable as the world inevitably turns to H.264. Five years ago, a compressionist’s toolkit needed to include knowledge of Windows Media, Real Video, Sorenson Video 3 and MPEG-4, along with an eye out for an emerging standard called H.264. Today, it’s VP6, which essentially has 2 relevant controls (VP6-E/S), Windows Media, and H.264. In two years, unless MPEG-LA totally hoses the royalty structure, most new encoding will be almost exclusively H.264.

Why, you say? Because it’s a joint standard adapted by the International Telecommunications Union and International Standards Organization, which together helps directs the standards adapted by the cellular, video, computer and consumer electronics market places. Obviously, it’s also been adapted by Apple, Adobe and Microsoft.

Looking forward, if video is critical to how you market, sell or support your product, or how you train or communicate with employees and partners, you’re going to need to consider a three or four screen strategy, encompassing cellular, computer, consumer electronics and portable players like iPods. The only compression technology that will work on all of these going forward will be H.264. So, if you’re serious about streaming video, that’s the codec you’ll need to adapt.

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