Ustream Review: The Live Streaming Service Evolves for New Areas

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During playback, viewers on computers can either select the desired stream quality, or let Ustream automatically select the best stream for their connection and playback. On the mobile devices I tested, automatic was the only option.

Ustream uses a proprietary adaptive streaming technology for desktop playback via Flash; though the streams aren’t encrypted, I couldn’t capture them with browser­based video capture plug­ins. Ustream uses straight HTTP live streaming for mobile, which worked fine on my iPhone 6 and Samsung Nexus 10 Android tablet. In my tests, there was a 15­second latency period between the event and display on my computer, which bounced up to 24 seconds on my iPhone. This would be irrelevant for most live events, but would be too long for any interactive application.

VOD Encoding

Ustream uses a completely different schema for VOD files, transcoding the uploaded file at the uploaded resolution and distributing that via progressive download. For example, I uploaded a 1080p mezzanine file encoded at about 10Mbps (it contained mostly screencam video). Ustream converted this into two files, one an H.264­-encoded .flv file for desktop distribution, the other an MP4 file for mobile viewing. Both were encoded at around 4Mbps.

When the videos are watched from a desktop or notebook computer connecting via Ethernet or Wi­Fi, this schema should work as well as adaptive streaming for most viewers. But a mobile user viewing via a cellular connection might experience some delays. If you anticipate lots of mobile viewing, you should upload lower-resolution files, around 640x360, either as the only files to be viewed by all, or perhaps in a mobile channel or labeled as mobile versions.

The other implication of this approach is that VOD videos can be grabbed easily with any number of browser­based video capture tools. Ustream doesn’t currently offer DRM protection; though you can control access to the videos with Align, you can’t prevent viewers with access from downloading your videos. In truth, any video that an employee can watch can be captured via a screencam recorder, and DRM is primarily the concern of entertainment-oriented content producers. Still, if the thought of employees being able to download your videos with a single click troubles you, that’s something to bear in mind. Note that Ustream plans to upgrade its VOD encoding and distribution to a more advanced schema down the road, but details regarding the technology and the timing were not available.

Wrapping up on the Pro Broadcaster, Ustream’s player is Flash­based, and can fall back to HTML5 if Flash isn’t available. On mobile devices, Ustream plays natively in the browser, though SDKs are available for companies seeking to deliver an app. Ustream can display closed captions that are embedded in the original live or VOD stream, but doesn’t support ingestion via sidecar formats.

One of Ustream’s unique strengths is its delivery infrastructure, which Dan Rayburn discussed. While nothing that I could test on the Ustream system would even remotely resemble a stress test, if you’re looking for a system that can handle a blockbuster audience, Ustream certainly appears to qualify.

Finally, all of Ustream’s Pro plans come with live telephone support, which is a key differentiator from YouTube Live and other free services. Though free is always good, if the system isn’t working for some reason, and a high­profile event is on the line, you’ll find the availability of phone support absolutely priceless.

Ustream Align

As mentioned at the top, Ustream Align uses many of the same components of the Pro Broadcaster system enhanced with more secure login capabilities, including support for single sign on. Pricing is available on the Ustream site, with packages varying by the amount of viewers, authentication options, the number of channels, and the number of channel managers. Align uses the same channel­based architecture as the Pro Broadcaster, with the option for a single companywide portal for all channels being rolled out during my review.

Security and analytics are the primary value add of Ustream Align, and you have multiple overlapping options. From a video sourcing option, you can restrict offering the video to your secure Ustream channel page, or from your own website, as in www.xyz.com, plus any addresses starting with that URL (www.xyz.com/training). You can also deploy IP filtering and GEO block.

For authentication, you can limit access to users using multiple single sign­on services via SAML, or to verified email addresses (Figure 4), which can further be restricted to specific domains (i.e., @.xyz.com). To add users via this technique, you add their email addresses into the system. When they try to login, they enter their email address, which triggers an authentication message to that address. Once they confirm the email address, they’re taken to the channel page.

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Figure 4. Creating a single sign-on for my Ustream channel 

In addition, where Pro Broadcaster’s analytics focus on the total number of viewers, Align tracks views at an individual viewer level. During my review, Ustream was finalizing the ability to track how long each user watched a particular video, useful data for a variety of functions.

Otherwise, Align’s features are very similar to the Pro Broadcaster with a few exceptions. As with the Pro Broadcaster, you can schedule live events that appear on the channel page. Branding options are very similar, but there is no social stream for comments from Twitter or Facebook. Higher­level Align accounts enable moderated Q&A.

This translates to a solid core feature set that will suffice for many users. However, many competitors offer more advanced branding, moderated video deployment workflows, more granular control over user and moderator rights, and the ability to administer quizzes. So if you’re looking to push the envelope in the enterprise OVP/corporate YouTube space, Ustream isn’t there yet.

Ustream Demand

Again, Ustream Demand is a bolt­on to the Pro Broadcaster product that lets you create a registration gate for each channel through which viewers have to pass to watch the video. Pricing is based on the number of channels and is only available by talking to an account rep. As shown in Figure 5, you can customize the introduction screen, the registration form, and the thank you screen, with email reminders coming soon. You can make the registration process voluntary or mandatory.

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Figure 5. Options for setting up the registration gate that comprises Ustream Demand 

After the viewer watches the video, you can download the data in a CSV file for import into your CRM or mailing list manager. If you’re producing events for lead generation, this feature could be very useful.

As with Align, Ustream is just getting started with Demand. Wistia and other services offer more features, such as direct integration with mailing list managers, the ability to create video email campaigns, and more advanced viewer tracking, albeit without support for live events. Demand is a very useful feature for Pro Broadcaster, but isn’t the ultimate in video-related marketing capabilities.

Summary

As a live event platform, Ustream is one of the preeminent providers, and should be considered by any organization seeking a live streaming service provider. I’ve used the platform many times for live events, and the Loose Strings concert was a success that you can read about.

As an enterprise OVP and marketing platform, it’s just getting started, offering a good live and VOD core feature set and a rock solid platform. Ustream is moving fast to augment these capabilities, and I would expect their feature sets to expand greatly over the next 12 to 18 months.

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Review: Ustream.”

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