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Automated Encoding Battle Heats Up at NAB

Encoding media to multiple streaming formats has always been a laborious chore. Despite the enduring presence of outsourcing encoding shops, many streamers still end up doing much of the work themselves. Typically, this has meant either using encoding software from the major vendors (RealNetworks, Microsoft and Apple), or tools like Sonic Foundry's StreamAnywhere and Terran's widely popular Cleaner, supplied by Media 100.

This situation looks likely to change, however. At the NAB show this year, one of the biggest trends is the emergence of "enterprise-class" automated encoding solutions — the kind Anystream pioneered with a release back in 1999. Today at NAB, Anystream and its main competitor, Telestream, unveiled updated products, and significantly, Media 100 showed off an "enterprising streaming" encoding solution, which will compete directly with solutions from Anystream and Telestream. Although the NAB showing was just a demo, Media 100's entrance into this field lends credence to the belief that there is a real market for automated encoding solutions.

"Streaming media is out of its honeymoon. It's not about broadcast, it's not about the Internet — it's about both."

These automated encoding solutions are software-based, essentially designed to use the brute force of multiple servers and processors to encode media into multiple streaming formats and bit rates. Such automation could make detailed hand encoding through tools such as Cleaner unnecessary for many companies, lowering the cost of producing or repurposing media assets for Internet distribution.

Anystream: Automated Encoding Veteran

Anystream (www.anystream.com), which essentially defined the automated encoding space, offers two main product lines: Agility Enterprise, an "enterprise-class" software encoding solution designed for companies that encode hundreds of hours of media per week, such as broadcasters; and Agility Workgroup, for companies that need to do just a few hours of encoding per day.

Agility Enterprise talks to broadcast servers and tape decks, so broadcasters can automatically have their content encoded ready for streaming. Anystream's biggest customer is CNN, which uses Agility Enterprise to post news bits online.

This week, Anystream updated its Agility Workgroup to version 1.5, adding support for VTR emulation, as well as some other features. Anystream also released demo software called Agility Workgroup SE, available for download from the company's Web site.

According to Geoff Allen, chief executive officer of Anystream, Agility Workgroup is ideal for anyone currently logging many hours with Cleaner, as it saves time and automates manual processes. Aside from broadcast customers, Allen points to companies like storage solution provider EMC, Network Appliance, and wireless solution developer PacketVideo, which are integrating Anystream's products into their own offerings. Interestingly, EMC showed a demonstration of a streaming service using Anystream's encoding, Infolibria's caching appliances, and (naturally) EMC's storage products.

Telestream's Factory Approach

Telestream (www.telestream.net) has its roots in hardware — originally, it sold its ClipMail Pro and ClipExpress boxes to broadcasters like Time Warner, Fox, CNN and Disney. These appliances take in taped video and output it as MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 video. But according to Dan Castles, president and chief executive officer of Telestream, the company is taking a more software-centric approach. In December 2000, Telestream unveiled an automated encoding solution called FlipFactory, which could "flip" files from one format to another.

"FlipFactory is a hit with broadcasters," said David Heppe, vice president of marketing for Telestream. On Monday, Telestream unveiled FlipFactory Pro. The product, which talks to many of the major broadcast servers on the market, is designed to simplify the re-purposing of existing media assets online. "It can view, read and write to media servers," said Heppe. "We're a part of the workflow."

FlipFactory Pro works with broadcast servers from vendors Leitch, Grass Valley Group, SeaChange, Sony and Pinnacle. (Interestingly, Grass Valley is releasing its own hardware encoding solution, the Aqua encoder, later this year. The company already offers a product called WebAble, which encodes content from its own Profile servers into streaming formats.)

FlipFactory Pro lists for $16,500 — considerably more than FlipFactory (now renamed FlipFactory Publish), which lists for $10,000. This week, the company unveiled new features for FlipFactory Publish, including more preprocessing filters, cropping tools, and a preview mode for checking your encoding options.

Media 100 - Going Beyond Cleaner

Though its Cleaner software is arguably one of the most popular encoding tools on the market, Media 100 (www.media100.com) says its customers have been asking for a faster way of encoding massive amounts of content. The company has responded by moving into the enterprise encoding space.

Still, Kevin Bourke, Media 100's vice president of corporate communications, insists that Cleaner will not be phased out. Rather, Cleaner forms the foundation of the new encoding platform. "We're building on top of Cleaner," said Bourke. David Cobosco, vice president of product marketing, added, "It's a logical extension of what we're doing."

Cobosco compared the new software to a "rendering farm" that uses multiple processors and computers to crunch media. He said that using this automated approach improves efficiencies in encoding files. "In the end, it's about quality, because that's what the company is all about," said Bourke.

Although Media 100 showed a demo at NAB, Bourke said the new encoding solution will not be released until sometime this summer. According to the company, features are still being added. For instance, the software currently does not talk to broadcast servers as Telestream's and Anystream's solutions can.

Media 100 also unveiled other related products today, including Cleaner Live, designed to simplify the process of capturing, publishing and delivering live events over an IP network.

The Battle Begins

With three serious players now occupying the automated encoding space, competition is beginning to heat up. Allen at Anystream welcomes the newcomers. "It's a great compliment, since we invented this space," he said. A key difference between his company and his competitors, Allen said, is that Anystream has real customers. The company also announced the addition of new customers this week, including Fox News, Clipstream, Newstream.com, Gotham Pictures and RTL New Media, a German media company.

Heppe at Telestream, however, countered Allen by citing a recent agreement with BBC News Online. Heppe also mentioned major FlipFactory customers TechTV and media conglomerate Pearsons. Castles, when asked to point out differentiating factors with Anystream, simply said, "Ours is less expensive and better."

Allen, however, wasn't convinced; saying the caliber of Anystream's customers speaks for itself. "The only thing we care about is our customers," he said. Allen admitted that Telestream makes good appliances, but said, "software is not their core competency. They're 18 months behind the market."

Telestream is currently working on a smarter solution, FlipFactory OnDemand, which will essentially transcode media on the fly as it is requested. According to Heppe, content providers will need to provide just one source file at the server. The company is working with IBM's Websphere transcoding publisher to provide on-the-fly transcoding. The technology is similar to that used in Generic Media's publishing service and a server from Vingage that can stream in any format.

Allen writes off Generic Media as a competitor, saying "It's an interesting concept, but they're like a Loudeye. Broadcasters never outsource their production."

Verbal barbs aside, there's no denying the pressing need for solutions that automate and simplify the tedious encoding process. With multiple proprietary formats and multiple bit rates to support, automated encoding can shave hours off the time it takes to encode manually, making streaming much more viable economically for traditional broadcasters and Web-only content providers alike.

"Streaming media is out of its honeymoon," said Allen. "It's not about broadcast, it's not about the Internet — it's about both."

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