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Review: Grown Up Microsoft Stream Is Ready for Business

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When we last looked at Microsoft Stream in August 2016, it was a preview version, so its commercial utility and competitiveness were difficult to assess. Since then, Microsoft has primarily focused on making Stream the ideal enterprise video service for companies whose employee communications and interactions are largely based around the various applications of Office 365. Although underfeatured and clumsy at times, Stream largely excels in this role.

Stream is included in most Office 365 plans for organizations. We won’t explore those options here, but if you’re interested in Stream, you obviously should identify any costs and relevant limitations before making a buying decision.

Organization and Users

In terms of authentication, Office 365 users and groups are managed with Azure Active Directory, Microsoft’s cloud-based user identity and authentication service. Some organizations will set up hybrid solutions that also connect to existing on-premises identity stores like Active Directory. If you’re currently using either of these services, deploying Stream among your users should be straightforward.

There are two primary organizational structures in Stream: channels and groups. Groups are actually Office 365 Groups that you can use in other Office 365 applications for organization and to control access to content. In contrast, channels are more of an organization method, which can be companywide or devoted to a single group. Channels appear on each user’s homepage along with trending videos (Figure 1). When a channel is companywide, all users with upload privileges can submit videos with no review and approval process. Administrators control who can upload videos, but it’s binary; either on or off, again with no approval. Individual users can follow channels to feature them on their homepage as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The home portal within Stream

Groups offer more control over access and uploading (Figure 2). They can be public or private and get their own email alias. In both cases, you can allow all group members to upload videos or restrict content creation to listed users as shown in Figure 2. This allows multiple types of groups for public and private access and contribution.

Figure 2. Creating a group

For example, a public group that disseminates important policies (human resources) might have only a few users who can add content; a public group for general consumption (favorite cat videos) might allow all users to add content. These same dynamics can apply to private groups: limiting content contribution for groups with mostly top-down policies (safety standards) while enabling all group members to upload to a tips and tricks group.

Users and Administrators

There are two types of users: administrators and everyone else. Administrators choose the spotlight video that appears on everyone’s homepage, decide who can create channels, upload videos, and produce live events. They can also track usage details and user data.

By default, users can choose the language and regional format and pick a theme for their Stream portal and player, although administrators can eliminate this option and set a mandatory companywide theme in Office 365. Also, using Office 365, you can insert your company logo and customize colors for the navigational bar, accents, text, and icons.

Users all have their own specific homepage; that’s what’s shown in Figure 1. As you can see on the top left, users can quickly navigate to their videos, groups, and channels—followed and otherwise—and view a watchlist of videos they’ve previously added to the list.

Groups all have their own homepage, which houses videos and channels and allows administrators to add more members. Channels simply contain a list of videos.

Video-on-Demand Content

Most users will add content to Stream in one of two ways: uploading videos or streaming live. We’ll cover these options in that order.

Since Stream is built on top of Microsoft Azure, it has a very competent video stack and can input most compressed and intermediate formats. Uploading is very YouTube-like: After identifying the video or videos to be uploaded, you fill in the name, the description, and any hashtags and choose a language and a thumbnail. Note that you can create an interactive table of contents by filling in time codes and topics in the Description field, which really adds value to longer videos.

Then you choose which groups, channels, and users can watch the video (Figure 3). This part is cumbersome; there’s no drop-down list for employees, groups, or channels, just a search function. This is understandable for users since there may be thousands, but a rough edge when selecting channels or groups when there may be only a handful. Once you’ve decided who to share the video with, checking the Owner check box gives the viewer the ability to edit video settings, delete the video, and add the video to other groups and channels.

Figure 3. Assigning an uploaded video to channels, groups, and users

The next group of options is where things get interesting (Figure 4). Enabling “People” turns on a timeline view that uses facial recognition to track when a particular individual is prominent in the frame. During playback, viewers can navigate through the video by that person (Figure 8). Imagine a conference session with four speakers and a camera tracking from speaker to speaker. This feature would let you jump to sections in the video where any particular person was prominent. You can also choose to auto-generate a caption file or upload your own, which are features that I’ll explore below.

Figure 4. Choosing the final set of options for an uploaded video

Once you’ve uploaded the video, it’s automatically transcoded with per-title encoding, which proved only somewhat proficient at balancing bandwidth and quality in our tests. As an example, three of our test clips were a screencam, a talking head, and a football game. Stream produced the top-quality full-resolution (1080p) version of the screencam at 692Kbps, which looked good throughout most of the clip.

However, while Stream produced the football clip at a top data rate of 6.9Mbps, which was appropriate, it encoded the talking-head video to 6.6Mbps, which was unnecessarily high. Other per-title options I’ve tested usually encode the talking-head clip at about half the data rate of the football clip. All that said, the quality was very good for both of these clips, which is what most viewers will care about.

Streaming Live With Stream

One of the critical features that Stream added since our last review was live broadcasting, which is well-integrated and simple to set up and produce. Setup is similar to video-on-demand (VOD) clips, except that you choose start and end times along with all the regular metadata (Figure 5). Or, you can elect to start the broadcast as soon as the encoder connects.

Figure 5. Streaming live with Stream and Wirecast

You can configure your encoder manually by copying the server ingest URL that Stream supplies to your encoder and entering in your credentials. Stream provides presets for five encoders in which you simply select your encoder, and Stream will configure everything for you. I tried this with Telestream Wirecast, and it worked seamlessly. In essence, Stream creates a document in Wirecast, chooses the appropriate encoding preset, and enters all necessary addresses and credentials. From there, you set up the audio and video and press Stream, and you’re ready to go.

On my version of Wirecast (retail version 11), Stream can’t currently open an existing project (called a document in Wirecast) when it’s called by Stream, which essentially means that you have to configure cameras, audio, backgrounds, and titles for each project. However, if you use Wirecast S, a Microsoft Stream-specific, subscription-only version of Wirecast, you can open an existing project, and Stream will insert credentials, addresses, and encoding presets into the existing configuration of audio and video sources and related elements. The bottom line is that integration likely varies by encoder, but even without a preset, connecting your encoder to Stream should be straightforward.

Although viewers of the live stream can “like” the video, the Stream player doesn’t enable comments when viewing a live stream. If you’re looking to start and watch over a dialogue among your employees, you can embed the video into Microsoft Teams, Yammer, or SharePoint Online.

Embedding Videos Into Other Office 365 Apps

Speaking of embedding, you can embed Stream videos into multiple Office 365 applications, with the specific technique varying by application. With SharePoint Online, you can embed a video or channel by copying and pasting its URL into the SharePoint page (Figure 6). Again, since Stream and SharePoint are sister products, it felt like the ability to use a drop-down list or another selection method would be more intuitive, although to be fair, copying and pasting a URL is the most common method of embedding video into a webpage, so it should be fairly intuitive for most users.

Figure 6. Embedding a Stream channel into a SharePoint page

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