The big guns in video streaming made the biggest noise at NAB, heading up a flurry of activity around the Web technology that simultaneously intrigues and intimidates broadcasters contemplating the future of the Internet:
RealNetworks struck an alliance with Akamai Technologies that will put RealNetworks' RealSystem G2 on all of its servers, significantly expanding an existing relationship between the two companies. Akamai's puts host servers close to end-user locations on the "edge" of the Internet, enabling more efficient downloads of video and smoother video streaming.
"In a broadband world, the Internet just does not work," says Pete Zaballos, director of systems marketing for RealNetworks.
It's the latest alliance RealNetworks has forged with a Web-hosting network provider; it already has relationships in place with InterVu, which counts NBC as a primary investor; Digital Island; Enron Broadband; Globix; Cidera; iBeam; and PanAmSat, for satellite broadband delivery. RealNetworks added another broadband satellite distributor to that roster last week, striking a deal with InterPacket Networks.
The use of Akamai's network, and similar private networks, streamlines video and circumvents the Web, according to Zaballos. "It reduces congestion and increases the quality for consumers. It also has the potential to reduce the expense for what they pay for bandwidth."
It's an increasingly essential part of the digital infrastructure to ensure efficient video streaming for the growing broadband universe, with over-arching significance for RealNetworks as a major content distributor in addition to its primary role as a streaming technology powerhouse.
"They're really putting the pieces together as an end-to-end service provider," says Steve Von der Haar, analyst for The Yankee Group.
Indirectly related to the deal RealNetworks and Akamai struck, both companies struck deals with Virage, which provides PC users with an online video search engine to locate clips on specific subjects. Akamai invested $3.5 million in Virage, and RealNetworks invested $3 million and intends to incorporate the Virage technology in subsequent generations of its RealPlayer.
Last week, RealNetworks claimed that 115 million different PC users have downloaded the RealPlayer to date.
How Microsoft counters
Microsoft continues to challenge RealNetwork's preeminent position, supplanting RealNetworks on several entertainment sites in the past year. Its latest move came with the demonstration of its Windows Media Technologies 7 platform at NAB. This iteration of its streaming technology is supposed to deliver broadcast quality video at 60 frames per second over a broadband Internet connection of at least 700 kb/s.
"We're going to be the Internet broadband-ready platform," says Dave Fester, general manager of marketing for Microsoft's digital media division. "What we're seeing now is a very fast movement toward broadband. We wanted to make sure that we had technologies that would scale well for that ride."
Approximately 25% of the Internet traffic playing video on Windows Media players is connecting to that content at speeds of 300 kb/s or better, according to Fester.
Seamus McAteer, senior analyst for Jupiter Communications, sees Microsoft's move as an impressive technical achievement with little practical application. "It's ingenious, except that nobody's really going to do anything at 60 frames per second," says McAteer, pointing out that only some DSL plants enable regular throughput rates of 700 kb/s for video streams.
The new Windows Media 7 platform includes a broadband encoder to ease translation of video for Web consumption and a flexible digital rights management feature that enables content providers to define terms for accessing and downloading video content. That's been a big part of the Windows Media strategy for Microsoft, which wants to supplant IBM's Electronic Media Management System as the system of choice for digital video or audio downloading.
Yankee Group's Von der Haar sees Microsoft "upping the ante" in pushing broadband player development after Real had been playing effective catch-up on Microsoft's improvements in streaming video. "It sends the volley back to Real, if they want to be viable in the broadband space
Microsoft expects to draw both movie studios and TV programmers as clients for the new platform, according to Fester, who indicated that more would be revealed when Microsoft makes the new code available in a few weeks.
Whether or not any programmers rush to take advantage of the new Microsoft technology, the implications are clear: the prospect of distributing video at a discernible level of quality and selling it in some manner, either in a pay-per-view model or as download that PC users could, in effect, own.
It's not too soon for local broadcasters to be contemplating content extensions beyond the Internet, according to Maryann Schulze, director of Magid Media Futures, the new media arm of Frank N. Magid Associates. "The Internet is just a first step," she says. "There's so much more coming out there with interactive TV and wireless."
For now, however, Magid Media Futures is primarily counseling TV station executives about setting online objectives. The heightened profile of Internet companies and the sea change implicated by Time Warner's merger with America Online have had a profound impact in jarring broadcasters' consciousness about the Web, according to Schulze. "A year ago, the attitude was, That's interesting, but we really don't see a way to build a business there,'" she says. "Now we're seeing a much greater interest among broadcasters in putting together an Internet strategy."
Once stations set an agenda, she suggests that they consider creating relationships with third-party content aggregators such as Zatso, FasTV or The FeedRoom to begin exploiting their resources on the Internet. "It's important for broadcasters to establish these relationships and really explore these third-party solutions," Schulze says. "They need to turn to companies whose core competency is technology."
Those third-party news-aggregation services are steadily making their own moves to improve their online profiles.
The FeedRoom is upgrading the functionality on its site (www.feedroom.com) by incorporating technology from Veon that will enable broadband users to read text about a story while they're viewing the news clip, or to click on "hot spots" within a clip to link to supplemental information sources.
FeedRoom also linked with its first local broadcast affiliate last week in a deal with Granite Broadcasting's kntv in San Jose, Calif., which will provide both packaged and unedited news, business, sports and weather content to the news content aggregator. FeedRoom has content deals in place with Reuters and USA Today.
"Expanding the reach of our local and regional newscasts continues to be the goal as we work with The FeedRoom to bring TV and Internet news to the next level," says Stuart Beck, president of Granite.
FasTV struck a deal with Meredith Corp. to provide its TV stations in Kansas City, Mo., Hartford and Nashville capacity to produce searchable versions of their newscasts on their Web sites. It also struck a multiyear deal with The Associated Press to make AP content available on the FasTV site (www.fastv.com), including national and international video, audio, photo and text services.
Zatso reached deals last week to carry content from Court TV, C-SPAN, Nightly Business Report, Quokka Sports, ZDTV and Bloomberg Television, along with selected story packages from Meredith TV stations in Portland, Ore., and Orlando, Fla.
Zatso also has distribution deals in place with Reuters, The Weather Channel, Ivanhoe Broadcast News and local stations owned by Allbritton Communications, E.W. Scripps, Meredith Corp., Media General and Waterman Broadcasting
The concept of digitizing video and other content for distribution on the Internet was just one component of a new initiative called Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE), unveiled at NAB by iXL in an alliance with Digital Island, Cisco Systems, Oracle, EMC and Sun Microsystems. The idea is to repurpose digitized video and other multimedia for the Web, interactive TV or mobile phones and other wireless devices in a single-step process.
"The way we look at it, convergence is divergence. Once it's translated into digital form, it's diverged into different formats," says Ken Papagan, senior vice president and general manager of iXL.
IXL is setting up an infrastructure to enable the use of a single element of content in several different venues. Digital Island is providing a private network for broadband distribution connecting to the Internet. Sun is supplying the overall platform for the initiative, with Cisco providing routers, EMC lending storage capacity and Oracle providing a database and video servers. IXL will maintain five COPE centers, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta and London, where it will be able to process content for different distribution modes with the support of its partners in the project.
But broadband is the basic common denominator in the distribution chain. "We look at broadband as an arena with many, many distribution platforms," says Papagan. "As digital set-tops deploy in the U.S., and as PC penetration increases and game consoles and wireless phones proliferate, they'll all use one form of Internet protocol."
FlexTech Interactive's SceneOne entertainment information site in the UK and 21e's Beatnik music service in the U.S. are initial clients for COPE, which will work with both online services to distribute elements of them beyond the Internet.