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Webcasting for the Masses

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What’s in the Stream?
What’s the player and protocol? Virtually all LSSPs use the Flash format and RTMP protocol. As far as I know, none support Silverlight or Windows Media, and none advertised multicast support. If you’re streaming to an external audience, Flash and RTMP are very good options, but if you’re totally sold on Silverlight, your external, service-based options may be limited.

What are the streaming options? At this point, few of the service providers enable dynamic streaming—multiple bitrate videos that adjust upward or downward based upon factors such as line congestion or the size of the viewing window. Some services will poll the player for bandwidth stats and send the appropriate bandwidth stream (but won’t adjust the stream dynamically if bandwidth changes or the viewer jumps to full-screen view). Dynamic streaming is a feature you’re definitely going to want, so ask if and when it will be available and what it will cost.

What’s the codec? Some services use VP6 for their free service, with H.264 reserved for paying customers. H.264 is definitely the higher-quality option and the codec you will likely want to use.

Do you HD? Not all service providers supply an HD stream, so check availability and cost if you want HD.

What about mobile? Distribution to iPhones may seem like the flavor of the month, but it’s likely here to stay. For example, during the recent Major League Baseball playoffs, about 10% of MLB’s streams were sent to iPhones. Several LSSPs that I interviewed reported that iPhone distribution was increasing, particularly by churches and worship-based customers. While I’m sure the priests, ministers, and rabbis would prefer their parishioners in an uncomfortable bench in front of them, it seems as though virtual attendance is better than none.

If the LSSP does stream to iPhones, make sure that it’s HTTP-based streaming delivered via cellular, not Wi-Fi. Also ask if it’s adaptive or fixed bitrate, since the former will help ensure a high-quality experience.

How about ancillary content? Some LSSPs can stream ancillary content such as PowerPoint slides, though it’s relatively unusual in this class of product. If this is a feature that you require, make sure the LSSP that you choose can supply it, but also review the options discussed in the rich media communications section.

What is the availability of social media? Live events work best when surrounded by community-building features such as Twitter integration, chat, polling, and Q&A. You definitely want these features, so find out if they’re available and what they cost.

How brandable is the player and channel? Most services offer multiple templates that you can brand and/or configure. Find out how many templates each LSSP offers, and scan through them to determine if they’re imaginative or cheesy. Verify that you can add logos and other design elements to the player and channel, and if desired, make the channel and player look unique and/or visually cohesive with your own website. Make sure that the player offers a competitive range of controls, such as volume adjustment and full-screen viewing.

How/where can you embed the stream? Determine whether you can embed the live stream in your own website, enable others to do so, and lock out certain sites. Also check that embedded player resolution is flexible or limited to fixed sizes, which can conflict with the design of your website or blog.

Monetization and Security Concerns
Does the service support your monetization business model? For example, if you’re webcasting for lead generation, can you capture names and email addresses of your viewers? If your model is pay-per-view, does the site support that? What about links to your own advertising networks or third-party networks?

Can you require user authentication to view the stream? It’s tough to talk about that upcoming product announcement (or any other private matter) if you can’t limit who watches the stream. Find out what type of authentication the LSSP supports and other security-related features.

Service Aspects
What is the availability of turnkey production packages? Many wannabe live event streamers have limited camera equipment, AV, or even IT skills. If you’re trying to host a high-quality event, factors such as lighting, microphones, and capture settings can make a huge difference in quality, and you’ll likely want some help for your first one or two events, perhaps for all of your events. Some live streaming service providers can send a technician with all necessary equipment to your door for a turnkey webcast, but most can’t.

What is the availability of custom encoding products? If you’re not technically savvy, it helps to have a custom encoding tool that works with the service right out of the box and that can be easily supported by your LSSP. Some LSSPs offer this option, but most of the less-expensive services don’t. What is the availability of custom development? Similarly, if you think that you’ll need help developing your landing page or player, check out whether the LSSP offers custom development services.

Which encoders does the service support? This shouldn’t be a huge issue; most support any encoder that can send a live Flash stream to a remote server, which most encoding tools can do. Still, you should ask for a list of known compatible products and select an encoder known to be compatible with the service.

Can the service archive your online presentations? Most can, but this raises a whole series of additional questions about whether the site is the best choice as your online video platform (OVP). OVPs provide a range of services for on-demand and live videos, including media management, interactivity, and analytics, with varying options for player customization. Choosing an OVP based primarily upon its live event capabilities could be a "tail wagging the dog" decision. You’re better off analyzing the organization’s on-demand and live capabilities as a whole. For considerations here, check out my articles "Choosing an Online Video Platform" (www.streamingmedia.com/article.asp?id=10952) and "The Moving Picture: Meet the Online Video Platform" (www.eventdv.net/Articles/News/Feature/The-Moving-Picture-Meet-the-Online-Video-Platform-56537.htm).

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