Getting beyond the sizzle

At NAB 2002,
streaming media may not have the same sizzle that it did just two years ago. But there are indications that it is maturing into a communications medium that consumers want, with companies poised to give it to them.

"The industry keeps moving forward in several key ways," says Michael Aldridge, lead product manager for Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division. "It isn't trying to refocus in one specific area. Instead, digital distribution opportunities are expanding beyond the initial Internet-based approach."

He sees important developments for music and video with the next version of the Windows Media Technologies platform, code-named Corona. Announced last December and slated to be showcased at NAB, Corona encompasses a new codec, encoder, player and server and, Microsoft says, offers improved bandwidth efficiency.

When streaming-player companies develop encoding technologies, their goal is CD/DVD-quality audio and video. Corona attains DVD-quality video with 5.1 surround-sound encoding. This not only improves the streaming experience but also opens a new market for Corona-encoded content: CDs and DVDs. If consumer devices like DVD players or the Microsoft XBox are equipped with Corona players, consumers can listen to and watch Corona-encoded content.

"We are reaching the quality level where we will be able to deliver incredible experiences on physical formats," says Aldridge.

RealNetworks' media player also is beginning to be incorporated into consumer devices. The end result of both Real's and Microsoft's development is that content providers can store more content on DVDs or CDs than they can with other encoding techniques.

Consumer applications are just one use for encoding techniques employed in streaming. Streaming in the content-production process is another.

For example, lower-resolution video can serve as "digital dailies." If a commercial spot or other content is encoded in a streaming format, the content can be sent electronically to those in the review process, eliminating the need for sending tapes via Fed Ex or other delivery method. It thereby speeds up the process.

"Streaming video is a tool we use to solve the work-flow problem," says David Schleifer, director for Avid Broadcast. "Making media accessible everywhere really improves productivity."

How it is incorporated into products depends on the specific use. Schleifer says the big difference is whether the project to be reviewed is headed straight to air (say, a news environment) or is a commercial spot or a project in post-production. The latter two have the luxury of time; the former does not.

"If it's a real-time process like news," he explains, "we need to generate a low-res version simultaneously with the high-res version."

On the post-production side, Avid's NetReview uses an in-house server for storage and allows users to access it via intranet or Internet. Users can also add comments that are timecode- and timeline-specific.

Avid will also be showing the Trilligent Cluster turnkey streaming-media system. The entry-level Trilligent has 300-Mb/sec bandwidth and 108-GB raw storage, 54-GB mirrored. It can be scaled up to 5,000-Mb/sec bandwidth and 7.3-TB raw storage, 3.6-TB mirrored.

Products that help make streaming a practical business seem to be on the list of every streaming-related NAB exhibitor. On the hardware level, an aging infrastructure calls for a new generation of inexpensive and efficient equipment.

"A lot of the proprietary systems are being replaced with commodity systems," says IBM Digital Media Chief Technology Officer Jurji Parasczack. "Companies have typically had specialized video servers. Now they are looking to migrate to the ubiquitous Wintel x86-based architecture and the relative low cost of disk storage."

Besides more-open hardware, another key element of IBM's Digital Media Factory is the Linux operating system. "The opportunity for Linux comes from a lot of people trying to migrate from a proprietary platform to an alternative with a robust operating system," says Parasczack.

But key to making video streaming work is simply to get people to pay for it. Jim Kreyenhagen, director of marketing and business development for RealNetworks, sees this year's NAB as the breakthrough for subscription services. Real's major announcement for the show is the launch of the RBN Managed Subscription Service.

"Many media companies like the RealOne offering but, for some reason or other, don't want to be part of RealOne itself," he says. "So we're making it possible for them to launch their own service. Essentially, it's a private-label subscription service that mimics RealOne."

Kreyenhagen says several well-known brand-name content providers will be identified at NAB as users of RBN. He believes the success of the new offering will derive from a few factors, including customers' becoming comfortable paying for streaming. "Everyone," he points out, "is used to paying their cable bill."

And he likes the dual-revenue model; what subscribers don't provide he hopes advertisers will: "Most media companies are supported through both some type of subscription offering and advertising," he says. "During past NABs, we've made announcements about enabling people to generate revenue through advertising. We consider this one additional step to the sweep of services we offer to enable media companies to generate revenue."

RBN's Application Service Provider (ASP) approach is an easy way for companies to see whether streaming really works for them, and it's a far less risky proposition than developing such capabilities in-house. The set-up cost for RBN starts at $10,000 for a non-customized system.

"It is very expensive to launch a commerce site," says Kreyenhagen. "The development and consulting fees make for a significant upfront investment. Renting a solution for a period of time to test the waters for a company's content is the best way to see if there's a business model there. That's why we're seeing significant interest in using the ASP model."

Jim O'Brien, global director, entertainment & media for Internet-content delivery provider Exodus, also predicts that 2002 will mark the year that subscription services became an everyday part of the consumer media diet. In building such businesses, established media companies will soon succeed where Internet upstarts failed.

"The initial wave of small companies had ideas too early for the market or lacked the proper business discipline," he says. "Those companies have largely faded. Now the large media companies are seeing that broadband build-out is sufficient to make a profitable business offering content over the Internet. By the end of the year, clearly, there will be many more subscription and pay-per-view resources available via broadband."

Exodus itself will head to NAB as part of larger company as well. In February, it was acquired by Cable & Wireless, becoming a sibling company of Digital Island, a major content-delivery network.

Consolidation may cut down on the number of streaming companies at NAB, but it also ensures that the ones there are stronger. "There's been a tremendous consolidation of companies offering hosting, streaming and networking services," O'Brien observes. "Finally, the market is properly focused on a few large players with the resources and proven ability to do an excellent job for customers."

Virage Senior Vice President Marketing and Strategy Dave Girouard also sees a move to subscription services with the company's announcement of a two-year deal with Turner Sports Interactive to bring streaming footage to Virage will help catalog and index the NASCAR-related video and audio content, something it is already doing for Major League Baseball.

Extending existing franchises online is a different approach from that of the first generation of Internet entrepreneurs. "They thought they could create original content, brands and personalities," he says. "Clearly, there wasn't critical mass to accomplish that. What we've found is that there's traction with large, established brands offering exclusive content for large, established fan bases."

Virage, which is known for its indexing and video-searching products, also hopes to exploit the changes in online and on-air operations within media companies. "We're seeing people looking for integrated products, a unified view of production of content for both TV and the Web," he says. "The Web group is no longer separate from the TV group. Originally, this was done because of an urgent need to cut costs; it happened in a frenzy. Now companies want to keep moving forward, building their online business. This time, they want to do it in a more integrated fashion, not through a separate group with its own agenda."

At NAB, Virage will introduce the VS Production system, aimed at the video professional. The system ties into equipment from broadcast-equipment manufacturers like Grass Valley Group and Avid and brings indexing and search capabilities to products like the GVG Profile video server.

An editor can search content stored on the server and pull up low-resolution versions of files that match the search criteria. Then, when the editor has selected the video to be edited high-resolution versions are placed in the editing system. It will be available in the third quarter at pricing to be determined.

Sonic Foundry, best-known for its digital-media production tools, has broadened its vision with its media-services division and the acquisition of MediaSite, a media-management/analysis/indexing company. According to Senior Vice President of Strategy Krishna Pendyala, the company has repositioned itself to help bring a renaissance to the streaming-media industry.

"We aim to jump-start the industry," he says, "by solving a current problem caused by the slowdown of the economy." With travel budgets cut back in many companies, the use of streaming as a means for corporate communications is taking off.

"At last year's NAB, we talked about the difference between using multimedia applications inside businesses versus adding multimedia to business applications," he adds. "The goal is enhancing business processes with rich-media content delivered as streaming media."

At this year's show, Sonic Foundry will feature MediaSite Live, a new application to simplify making multimedia presentations for online distribution. With many broadcast station groups and networks increasingly connected via wide-area networks, the backbone is in place to take advantage of streaming technologies for internal communications.

Streaming media seems to be following the pattern seen with other successful technologies. After the initial hoopla, it's slow and steady. For Avid Broadcast's Schleifer, this relatively still period is no less exciting.

"Now that the fanfare of the dotcom boom is past, [streaming technology] begins to sneak up on you," he says. "Very quietly, people are refining the model and getting it to the point where it works."