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First Look: Microsoft Stream Preview Version

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The benefits of this approach are obvious. Easy-to-encode videos are delivered at much lower bitrates, saving bandwidth on the corporate network, while harder-to-encode videos get the extra data rate they need to ensure high quality. As far as I know, Stream is the only vendor use any form of per-title encoding for adaptive bitrate delivery.

In addition, Stream is the only enterprise YouTube vendor I know of that applies encryption to all of their videos, which prevents viewing outside of the Stream environment. While any employee with a screencam recorder can still copy the video, encryption makes it much harder for disgruntled employees to share videos outside your organization, and sends a message that privacy is expected. As with per-title encoding, encryption is a feature that all enterprise YouTube vendors should consider deploying, or at least making available.

Playing Videos in Microsoft Stream

Like the portal, the player is currently non-customizable for appearance or feature set. The feature set is pretty standard, with all the normal player controls and the ability to choose a stream to watch, or to let the system decide. Since you can't distribute the video externally, there are no social media links, though again, anyone with rights to watch the video can embed it, or share it via an email link, for viewing by other Stream enrollees in their company. You can also Like a video, or include it in a watchlist for later viewing.

Microsoft Stream Analytics

Analytics are very primitive at this point, limited to the ability to see how many viewers started playing your video, and how many likes the video received, but nothing else. Most enterprise YouTube products go much further here, including drop off data to understand when the typical viewer stopped watching the video, and user-specific data like which employees watched the video and for how long. This lack of data makes Stream a non-starter for most enterprises seeking to deploy formal mandatory training among different employee groups, or even monitor who's watching which videos.

My Testing

Since Stream is still in Preview, I limited testing to what was necessary to understand how the system works and for some compatibility testing. I started by uploading multiple videos, a useful feature that not all enterprise YouTubes offer. The upload will stop if you navigate away from the upload page, which Stream courteously advises you if you attempt to click away. I also uploaded videos from an Android Samsung Nexus 10 tablet and my iPhone 6, which worked perfectly. Encoding and transcoding uploaded files was handled in moments by the Azure back end.

In browser-based playback, Stream videos played well on the most recent versions of Chrome, Firefox, IE and Edge, but the same videos failed to play on Safari 9.1.1, which reported that "the video could not be loaded, either because the server or network failed or because the format is not supported." In the Opera browser 38.0, the same video also failed to play, though Opera reported the more believable "the video playback was aborted due to a corruption problem or because the video used features your browser did not support." I got the same "corruption" error playing in Firefox 43 (the current version is 47), and the video wouldn't load or play in Internet Explorer 8, which is ancient, but still has several percentage points of market share.

In mobile testing, the test video played fine on the aforementioned Nexus 10 and iPhone 6, though it crashed completely on an iPad 1 running iOS 5.1.1, and an older Toshiba AT100 tablet running Android version 4.0.4. While the Safari and Opera problems are concerning (and Microsoft is looking into them), few enterprise YouTube systems support generation 1 iPads, and support for Android 4.0 and earlier is also waning.

Where's that leave us? In its current form, Stream is interesting, but non deployable at scale within larger organizations due to the lack of centralized IT control, analytics, and other features typically required by larger companies. Speaking of missing features, while I identified several above, I barely touched the surface. You can get a more complete listing from a Microsoft Stream competitor here. As a counterpoint, you can see a list of features Microsoft is considering adding here.

While the existing feature set might be acceptable for smaller companies, it's always scary to invest in a technology before you know its pricing, or even its ultimate feature set. Basically, the Stream preview lets us know that Microsoft expects to play in this market, and identifies a couple of must-have encoding-related features that are bound to appear in competitive products over the next few months. Otherwise, for most organizations, it's wait and see.

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