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Ustream, Qik Apps Finally Let iPhone Users Stream Live

One of the last barriers on the iPhone fell last month, and owners of even the 2G and 3G models can now shoot video and stream it live. Without any notice and after considerable delay, Apple allowed the app Ustream Live Broadcaster in the app store on December 9. This free app lets users stream live video over 3G or Wi-Fi connections. Users can run polls and hold chats underneath their videos. A few weeks later, on December 24, Apple allowed Qik Live, a free app for streaming live video that also works over 3G and Wi-Fi connections.

Famously tight-lipped, Apple didn't offer any clues as to why the sudden switch. The company's public relations team likewise didn't respond to a request for this story. We did speak to a few insiders, however, who knew the story.

It was a "long process," says Brad Hunstable, president and founder of Ustream. How long? About a six months of back and forth discussions between Ustream and Apple, with many in-person meetings. "We would have certainly liked it to happen sooner," he says.

When Ustream's team saw the technological jump in the iPhone 3GS, they made more of an effort to work with Apple to deliver live video uploading. Many of Apple's concerns had to do with providing a satisfying user experience, says Hunstable. As a result, the app offers different quality settings for each model iPhone. Because his company was able to devote so many resources to the product and meet Apple on a professional level, Ustream's app won approval first, he says.

While iPhone users were frustrated that they had to wait so long for live streaming, Hunstable says, "We get the logic." If this feature had been available from the start on the 2G iPhone, "it wouldn't have been the best experience by any measure," he says.

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iPhone users seem glad it's arrived: "We've seen a tremendous amount of adoption since we launched it," Hunstable adds. "We're well on our way to a million downloads."

"Apple is almost like a black box," says Bhaskar Roy, co-founder and vice president of product marketing at Qik. His company was also in talks with Apple about opening the iPhone to live streaming, but it was a one-sided conversation. "It was mainly us asking questions," he says. "We did not get a whole lot of answers for the past one to one-and-a-half years."

The Qik team has a special reason to be frustrated by Apple's silence: They knew that their app would run even on older iPhones. They'd been selling an app on Cydia for jailbroken iPhones since July, 2008.

Qik was able to ride in on Ustream's coattails, submitting its app for approval soon after Ustream got in. The company had to make some changes, however, and use an API that Apple had started allowing. Called _UIGetScreenImage, the API controls how video is captured. The Qik team wasn't given any bandwidth restrictions to follow.

Video quality isn't as strong on the approved app as the jailbroken app, Roy admits, with the jailbroken app capturing 15 frames per second (fps) and the approved app only 7fps. The problem is the required API, he says, which is almost a screen capture API. There are only so many optimizations you can do, he says.

The Qik team is already at work on the next version of the app. It will improve overall quality, but Roy won't confirm whether or not it will offer more frames per second. Roy won't be satisfied until Qik is able to deliver 30fps on the iPhone. "We would like them to open up their APIs so that complete video sharing can actually be done without screen capture," he says.

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Ustream is also working on its next version, a high-resolution, 640 x 480 client that it began demoing last week. "It's too much data for a U.S. 3G network," says Hunstable, noting that the company is seeing good test results in Japan. "It's pretty amazing to be broadcasting from your iPhone and be walking around, and have a level of quality that exceeds even the built-in MacBook's. It's pretty remarkable."

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