A lot can happen over the course of twenty years. In the world of streaming media, twenty years is nearly its lifespan. For Streaming Media the publication and tradeshow, 2017 marks their twentieth year as an organization. We were therefore honored to have Anil Jain and David Sayed in attendance to visit with customers and speak at the show.
What’s Old is New Again
Call me nostalgic, and I personally blame Netflix’s Stranger Things 2 and the fact that it has made something from the past (specifically the 80s era) cool again. In a similar way, it feels like some particular elements of streaming - like live sports and live channels, popular in the early days of streaming, are coming back to the future. And make no mistake - live is back. Not only is it back, it is the new black. Broadcasters large and small, traditional channel aggregators, and ‘skinny’ bundle providers are ‘all in’ on live streaming, building services to deliver to you, the viewer.
Yes, we’ve been here before. Live streaming is that old flame, the girl or guy who had it all together but needed the rest of the world to catch up with them. We’ve all seen or done live streaming before, but well before its time as a market mover. When I was at Yahoo! back in the day, we streamed all five major sports leagues live. This was before NFL Sunday Ticket or NHL Center Ice. But it was live. And it was streaming. Sure, it involved Windows Media and Real Networks and later, Flash Media, but it was good. And it was real. And it mattered.
And then live went off to find itself.
The resurgence of live is tied to a great many things, from the rise of skinny bundles to specialized live sports streams and beyond. Overall the trend is good, both for viewers and technology providers. Expect to see the number of OTT delivered live channels to grow over the course of 2018. Hard to predict how many with specificity, but live linear will grow. Some new, supplemental technologies that will help this are the SRT Alliance and transport stream (TS) as delivery mechanisms for this ‘new’ live. I’ll go deep on both in another blog post, but one key takeaway is perfectly captured in a hallway conversation from a colleague at a hardware partner of ours, who said, “Think of TS like SDI, it is something broadcasters understand well.” As the industry moves toward more mature and fault tolerant technologies that TS and SRT provide (like forward error correction (FEC)), we will be delivering on the mantra that we’ve lived by in being ‘better than broadcast’.
Another Overhyped Technology Takes a Tumble
At last year's show, virtual reality (VR) and 360 degree video were all the rage. It seems like every third exhibitor stand and a few track talks had a good deal of chatter on these two technologies. Roughly one month ago, Nokia made waves by divesting itself of its VR unit and 300 employees. To be clear, we’re not forecasting the demise of VR and 360. But, it seems as if the market is resetting itself from what looked like a ton of overhype of these two technologies from one year ago. Augmented reality is and remains a technology that I believe will have a far larger impact than either 360 and VR.
Politics, Religion, and Codecs
Brightcove’s VP of Product Marketing, David Sayed, participated in a discussion on the various compression camps and where things are headed. For context, codecs are used to convert the content that we want to watch into something small enough to be delivered over the internet, and in a way that is compatible with your viewing device. In today’s market, it is safe to say that H.264 (AVC), originated by broadcast standards-body MPEG, and VP9 originated by Google, are both alive and well. Depending on your device, browser, hardware manufacturer, and their delivery strategy, one of them will be used for your media consumption. Which one is better depends on who you are and what platforms you’re trying to reach, and perhaps on perceptual visual quality. Some argue that VP9 is the best option, given that it is owned by Google and has been made free to use. However, many publishers and service providers see value in using H.264, which can reach every device that they wish to target, with optimized encoding options (like Brightcove’s Context Aware Encoding), so publishers can improve video quality while reducing cost of delivery and storage. In this conversation, I can’t help but say that it feels like an Android versus iOS, PC versus Mac, or the dress is blue versus gold argument. Your decisions and direction ultimately depend on your own personal truth. Today’s world on iOS, Android, and set top boxes are such that different entities and companies are using certain codecs that they’ve invested in, optimized or may own outright. As the heading suggests, it is a contentious area with no shortage of opinions and vision.
The Crystal Ball of Video Technology Remains Clouded
The near term future is within sight, just over that proverbial horizon. I consider it ironic, in that it feels like we’ve been here before. Or at least in the same general vicinity. H.265/HEVC is the successor to its little brother H.264. We’ve been testing it in labs for a couple of years, and many have put it aside for what come call cloudy licensing terms. This year’s late Apple Special Event appears to have changed that perception. With its nod to Dolby Vision, an impressive method for creating aurally and visually compelling HDR 4K content and its embrace of HEVC appears to move the market. From still pictures to 4K video experiences, the better the compression, the better the visual experience and end result.
On the other side of the equation is what is promised to be a royalty free approach to ‘next gen’ compression for 4K resolution (and beyond), the Alliance for Open Media. The group of recognizable industry names and players is making the case that a free, royalty free codec is capable of being just as relevant as the standards based and ‘for pay’ AVC/HEVC approach. They intend to release an open, royalty free codec called AV1 that seeks to replace VP9 and compete with H.265/HEVC. The goal for finalization of the spec is the end of 2017. When it will ship is still unknown.
On David’s panel, Timothy Terriberry from Mozilla explained the current state of AV1. The prevailing opinion seems to be that while there is a lot of interest in AV1, organizations looking to deliver content today need to focus on H.264, HEVC or VP9 depending on their needs.
I say this is deja vu because it feels like 2005 again. The names and players are different, from Real Networks, Windows Media, & Flash (Sorenson Spark anyone?) then to H.265, VP9, AV1, and Apple and Google now. Let’s face it folks, the codec wars never ended, they just morphed into a different animal with new spots and stripes. As the famous novelist Stephen King once said, “sooner or later, everything old is new again.” Words to live by in the ever-changing world of video. We’d have it no other way.