Playing The Field

When I started in the web streaming business over a decade ago (seriously!), there was only one choice for streaming video over the web - Real Media (as it was called then). Quick Time was a progressive download alternative (but never really delivered a streaming solution) that, along with Windows Media Video (called .asf at the time) were the standards for CD video delivery.

The tale of how these three technologies developed from a similar parentage is the stuff of legend by now, but it's notable to see how a new pretender - Flash video - was very much a new kid on the block but has still managed to achieve significant market share.

Anyone who has read the book 'The Tipping Point' will be aware of the 'maven' theory. Concisely, it states that you have to influence the influencers.

What Real, Microsoft - and even Apple - have failed to do is to get their video formats and players accepted by the creative community who have grown up on Macs with Adobe products.

I polled friends in ad agencies recently and they reckon 50 - 80% of all video ads are now in Flash video format by default. As a result, they can only be served to Flash video sites (at the moment - I am working on a solution to this...).

Issues like quality and security have taken a back seat against incumbency.

You basically need two elements to present video on a PC - a codec and a player. The codec is the algorithm that encodes and decodes the video so that it can be transported efficiently (it's a trade off of quality v filesize) and the player is the wrapper around this that enables the video stream to be controlled.

Real's player can play pretty much any codec seamlessly, but this has not helped it. Meanwhile, On Two produced a codec for Real around eight years ago that was astounding at the time for its quality v file size, and this has recently been adopted as the default Adobe Flash video codec in place of the sire Sorensen codec. However, it is a lot less impressive playing in Flash and leaves a lot to be desired currently (Flash struggles badly when streaming above 600Kpbs or longer programming).

And then of course, there are the de facto industry standards - H.264 and the like. But just because the industry likes them doesn't mean that they can stop squabbling over copyright long enough to promote them and that the public cares anyway. They just want a seamless experience - which is why Windows Media is great on a PC with IE, but more of an issue using another browser or OS.

Over the years I have been approached by over two hundred companies that have their own codecs and players (Joost is the latest example), all, critically, requiring an additional install.

I still content that Microsoft's VC-1 codec is the best available in the quality v file size trade off, provided the encoding is optimised

It's a chequered history, but it demonstrates that even now, the market for the the delivery of video is still open. It also proves that the adage 'never be a prophet in your own land' is true...