Live Webcasting Solutions Buyer's Guide

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A typical scenario would be a live corporate presentation with both wired users who can receive the multicast and wireless or remote users on networks that are not multicast-enabled. However, using the peer-to-peer functionality, the wireless viewers are able to receive the same quality broadcast as the multicast network users. This was further illustrated at completely remote locations that had no multicast ability but were able to receive a couple of streams from the source server and redistribute them within their corporate network without going to outside networks. By using Flash Media Enterprise Server 4 and Flash Player 10.1, it is possible to deliver improved multicast streams within the enterprise without significantly investing more in network infrastructure. Adobe Flash Media Server 4 is currently available on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) platform and is expected to help small-business and event producers create interactive and scalable events at a more affordable cost.

I also spoke with Microsoft product managers Chris Knowlton and David Sayed about the growth in live opportunities and how Microsoft solutions are employed. While many customers traditionally asked them about solutions in the enterprise, more customers are now asking about using their media deployments on the internet for mobile users, shareholders, and customers. Certainly the cross-platform capabilities of Silverlight have extended the live possibilities from viewers who might be in a multicast enterprise to multiple device users on the internet without the need to provide multiple device stream encodes.

IIS Smooth Streaming allows the broadcaster to scale more broadly and to provide the end user with a better viewing experience. Knowlton explained, "IIS Smooth Multicast extends the same capabilities of multicast that Microsoft has been doing for years and combines it with the adaptive nature of Smooth Streaming, so organizations achieve the bandwidth savings of multicast and also the capabilities to adapt for wireless users, for example."
Expression Encoder 4, with its increased live broadcasting capabilities and support for H.264 and built-in Silverlight templates for live webcasting, is a robust tool for producing live events. I have used Expression Encoder since its introduction and have found it to be a straightforward product that integrates well with on-demand clips, interstitial ads, and multiple live camera feeds up to HD resolution. It should be noted that H.264 encoding and IIS Live Smooth Streaming are only available in the Pro version of the encoder.

"As we have done more of the really large-scale broadcast events, like the Olympics and Sunday Night Football, using the Microsoft media platform together with partners and CDNs, people are becoming more aware of what is possible with live streams," says Sayed. "They are seeing that they are not only getting broadcast television quality, but they are also getting all of the additional functionality and augmented experience of the ability to switch between different cameras, follow different players, and replay functionality."

While most users will not have the capabilities to produce something along the lines of the Olympics, it certainly shows the capabilities of the platform and what can be achieved. "We are seeing a lot more interest from college and even high school sports [departments] that want to use live broadcasting and use the recorded streams for coaching and player highlight video," says Sayed. One of the service companies they work with in this market is Hudl.com, an affiliate of XOS Digital.

Smaller-Scale Webcasting Solutions

While there are many applications at the enterprise level, there are increasing opportunities in smaller events, local news, and education. Rich Mavrogeanes is one of the pioneers of streaming hardware as the founder of VBrick. The company has always had a strong product lineup and is well-established in the education and enterprise markets. VBrick products are designed for 24/7 encoding and distribution and may not necessarily be within the budgets or technical skill sets of some users. Two years ago, Mavrogeanes founded Discover Video with the goal of producing a system that can be set up and managed easily, even by a college professor, without needing to learn technical skills.

As described by Mavrogeanes, "The Discover Video Multimedia Encoder (DVME) is an advanced software system that streams live and records your camera video, your desktop, and your whiteboard in H.264, Flash, Windows Media, or MPEG-2 format." In addition to the software solution, Discover Video also provides a hardware/software solution for those who desire it. Both solutions can stream and be archived to a client's CDN; Discover Video also has CDN relationships that can be included in the pricing. This type of solution should be a boon to the education market, where funding is being squeezed, technical support is already lean, and educators are much better at teaching subject matter than fussing with the technology. The software is economical enough to be deployed in nearly every classroom. It can be scheduled to start and stop at the appointed times and will automatically FTP (file transfer protocol) the finished file to a server to be included in online learning. I expect to see more adoption of this type of solution in classrooms across the country as funding decreases and the need to provide online learning accelerates.

Monetizing Live Webcasts

Streaming live events has traditionally been thought of as a cost center. Whether tied to the marketing budget or attached to the IT function, it has been thought of as a cost, not as a technology that could help drive profit. Fortunately, that viewpoint is changing rapidly. Now, companies ask how they can extend their reach to the same level of viewership they have enjoyed on television. "If we can develop a profitable advertising model on broadcast television, why can't we do the same online?" they ask. As Bishop noted, "In order to achieve monetization, we need to be able to do ad insertion much like broadcast does." Both Microsoft and Inlet worked on the last Winter Olympics with NBC. During television commercial breaks, television viewers would see one ad, while broadband and mobile users would see different ads inserted from ad servers anywhere on the network. This was accomplished by putting a marker in the stream at commercial breaks that describes the length of the break, the ad opportunities, and the ads that can be inserted. NBC was able to monetize all three screens as distinct platforms with distinct ad loads, impressions, and viewer demographics. Monetization will take a greater role in the future as publishers and advertisers come together through robust ad networks that will place ads in any targeted demographic.

A Global Opportunity

While many of us focus on the enterprise applications of live streaming, it is important to acknowledge the significant growth and market acceptance of providers such as Livestream, Ustream, and others. They have built systems that are extremely robust, accessible, and easy to use. Live streaming hardware manufacturers such as LiveU and Go-Live have been able to shrink the capabilities of a broadcast truck to the size of a backpack and have had a significant impact on the way that remote broadcasting is done by major broadcasters and small-event producers alike. I see this market segment exploding in the next few years as live remote events become the compelling standard. As a friend at LiveU noted, "Every organization is a media organization. We all need to reach our customers, our investors, and the larger consumer market." Microsoft's Sayed adds that "everybody has the ability to create video today and publish it somewhere. The next step is how to do it live at a quality that people will want to watch."

2011 is shaping up to be another good year for live video. Many think that perhaps this is the year of live streaming video. From the large news and media networks through the enterprise and down to the small, live streaming event producer, there are robust and growing solutions that can achieve any scale and fit into any budget.

I "watched" my first live online concert by a band from Toronto originating from London in 1995. I had a hot dial-up connection. The music came through pretty well; the video never did make it across. Now I watch in HD with a bit of 3D thrown in on my phone. I may wax nostalgic about where we started, but I much prefer the present and look forward to where we will most assuredly go.

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