Webcasting for the Masses

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This article first appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

Webcasting live events used to be complicated and expensive, but a range of products and services—some new, others that have been around for a while—have simplified live event streaming and made it much more affordable. In this article, I’ll identify the relevant live marketplaces and outline key companies and technologies to consider in each market.

Let me say up front that this is a fast-moving market with lots of service providers moving in and out alongside long-established players. I tried to mention the most prominent companies in each space along with some decision-making criteria for your consideration. However, my company listings are by no means exhaustive, and if I mention that a particular product or service has a certain feature, it does not mean that other products or service providers don’t offer the same feature.

Overview
After starting my research, I quickly discovered that the live event market is actually composed of (at least) two submarkets: rich media communications, which involves streaming PowerPoint slides and other graphics with the video, and video-only events.

(Note that this article does not address services such as WebEx, ON24, BrightTalk, and others that combine audio-only streaming with slide presentations, nor does it examine the technology choices associated with a "roll your own" approach to webcasting.)

While there’s some crossover between the two markets, the decision tree is very different. Specifically, with rich media communications you almost never want to piece together the system yourself; it’s simply too complicated. Rather, you choose a system from a vendor such as Accordent Technologies, Inc. or Sonic Foundry, Inc. first, and this decision largely directs your ancillary decisions, such as player, transport protocol, and distribution technique.

In live video-only streaming, the decision tree first works through the target of your webcast—internal or external— particularly if LANs and WANs within your organization are multicast-enabled. If so, your best option is to use internal multicast-compatible servers, not an external service. Since my focus is primarily external broadcasts, I won’t address multicast distribution any further.

Figure 1
This is Ustream.tv’s advertising-supported service.

If you’re targeting an external audience and/or your internal WAN structure is not reliably multicast-compatible, you can adapt an a la carte approach, choosing your player (Flash, Silverlight, Windows Media, iPhone), transport protocol (HTTP, RTSP, RTMP), encoder (or encoders), and distribution partner separately. However, a better approach for most organizations would be choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP) such as Livestream; Multicast Media Technologies, Inc.; or Ustream.tv. Over the past few years, companies in this category have started working with an impressive list of client companies and brands. For example, Multicast claims Delta Air Lines, SAP, and Sotheby’s as clients; Livestream mentions IBM, USA TODAY, and C-SPAN on its website; and Ustream.tv serves Disney, Duke University, and Sun Microsystems, Inc. If these large, tech-savvy organizations think it’s best to hire out this functionality, perhaps it’s right for your organization as well.

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