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Streaming Gets Smarter: Evaluating the Adaptive Streaming Technologies

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In its "2008 Consumer Panel Broadband Survey," IDC reports that 25% of all participants can successfully download a 1,200Kbps file, while a startling 69% of all respondents can retrieve a 2,400Kbps file. If you’re a media or entertainment company, or any organization for which streaming high-quality video to consumers is mission-critical, one key goal of your distribution mechanism should be to reward the higher bandwidth customers with a better viewing experience.

The low-tech way to achieve this has been used by movie companies for years—simply create different streams at different bandwidths and let the viewer decide which one to view. The downside of this approach is that it doesn’t adapt to changing conditions. For example, imagine Daddy happily streaming upstairs, watching an HD shopping-channel stream, when Mommy decides to watch the last few moments of the ball game. Daddy’s bandwidth instantly gets halved.

As a content distributor, you want Daddy’s experience to gracefully degrade, not stop, which can’t happen when you’re delivering a single stream. Your streaming technology needs the ability to assess changing conditions and request a lower bitrate stream, preferably before Daddy even notices there’s a problem. In addition, it would be great if that technology could adaptively serve a number of devices and connection bandwidths, from mobile phones to the set-top box in your living room.

In a nutshell, this is what adaptive bitrate streaming technologies do—make multiple streams available from the same link, send the right stream to the right viewer when clicked, and adapt to changing conditions behind the scenes.

Who Cares?
One of the most poignant memories from my short fraternity life in college was a meeting in which the chapter president asked, "What are we going to do about member apathy in this fraternity?" One wag responded, "Aw, who cares?" With any technology such as adaptive bitrate streaming, you have to ask the same question.

As streaming media consumers, we all care because, to a degree, these technologies control the number and type of plug-ins that we may have to install to view content. As streaming producers, the vast majority of those using or considering adaptive bitrate streaming are the media and entertainment companies, which use advertising-based models that depend on viewer satisfaction and retention—the happier the viewers, the longer they watch and the more frequently they return.

With YouTube delivering stunning 720p quality today, many other organizations currently distributing SD streams need to consider upgrading to HD, rewarding the high-bitrate consumers while not abandoning those with slower connections. If video is a key component of your marketing, communications, training, or product mix, you need to know about adaptive bitrate streaming.

Meet the Contestants
Multiple companies compete in the adaptive bitrate streaming space, with the first technologies launched back in 1998. Many streaming "gray hairs" remember RealNetworks, Inc.’s SureStream and Microsoft’s multiple bitrate (MBR) technologies, which were the precursors to today’s more recent market entries.

The first to popularize adaptive bitrate streaming in recent times was Move Networks, Inc. The company bundles its adaptive streaming technology within a range of value-added services; current customers include ABC, FOX, ESPN, and Televisa. In May 2008, Adobe announced dynamic streaming, reporting that the new feature was in testing with many major networks. However, the only current nondemo deployment is by the Cannes Film Festival (www.festival-cannes.com/hd/en).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Though RealNetworks and Microsoft made multiple bitrate plays in the late 1990s, Move Networks was the first to popularize adaptive bitrate streaming in recent years, with current customers including FOX, ESPN,Televisa, and ABC (shown here).

In late 2008, Microsoft announced Smooth Streaming for Silverlight, which was essentially the productization of the adaptive bitrate streaming technology originally deployed in the 2008 Summer Olympics. More recently, the 2009 French Open was streamed live via Smooth Streaming, though it was unfortunately geoblocked in the U.S. Finally, in June 2009, Apple announced its own adaptive bitrate streaming over HTTP for iPhones and the new QuickTime X.

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Adaptive Streaming in the Field

How do organizations like MTV, Turner, NBC, Deutsche Welle, Harvard, and Indiana University actually deploy adaptive streaming technologies? Read on for all the juicy details.