Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Online Video Then & Now -- Ever-Increasing Complexity

This is a guest post -- originally published today in respected industry blog Gigaom -- by Sorenson Media's COO, Eric Quanstrom, about the ever-increasing complexity of online and mobile video in the past few years. A "must read" by a very very smart and talented guy (with whom I have had the pleasure of working now for nearly 5 years both at Sorenson Media and my former company SightSpeed).


In 2007, online video was the future. YouTube had just been acquired for $1.6 billion. Well-funded competitors such as Joost, Veoh, Babelgum and Revver were all familiar names producing short-form entertainment or hosting user-generated clips. Everyone was using Adobe Flash, which was by far the dominant format for video encoding and playback on the Web browser. Back then, Internet Explorer held 86 percent of the browser market. For most, online video was a straightforward affair: You put a video online; you made it short; and you hoped for the best.


Fast forward four years: YouTube is still around, but everything else has changed. None of the other user-generated video companies still exist in their original form. Adobe Flash is still the default option for video playback, but it’s far from ubiquitous. Browsers are now a grab bag of market share: IE (39 percent), Firefox (30 percent), Chrome (16 percent), Safari (6 percent) and Opera (2 percent).


Meanwhile, HTML5 promises to reinvent the video experience through the native use of the video tag and built-in codec support. And Apple iOS devices — which don’t support Flash — have now grown to more than 2 percent of all web browsing, with no sign of slowing. Finally, there’s a revolution taking place on the TV screen: Internet-connected “smart” TVs are everywhere, and video game consoles and other devices are providing a home to every type of content known to man.


Consumers today demand a TV-quality experience across every device they own. Among key demographics, video is now an always-on, always-with-you endeavor.


In 2007, moving video from camera to production to finished output involved little encoding mastery. That experience was mainly about getting a single compression right — a 1:1 ratio of source files to renditions, if you will. Back then:

  • Codecs mainly served a single purpose: Flash playback. Most consumption occurred through progressive download, usually over HTTP. The biggest drawback was buffering, or the starting, stopping, stuttering and waiting for a video experience as files arrived at different times.
  • Higher bit rates, which offer the promise of higher quality, simply take up more bandwidth, which increases wait times and consumer abandonment rates. Internet connection speeds, especially those in the United States, were also fairly slow. The median U.S. download speed was less than 2 Mbps.
  • Screen resolutions were fairly small. Since they were consistently lower than 1024×768 pixels, that meant native 1080p video was impossible and 720p video was out of reach for a significant portion of Internet viewers.


How are things different today?

  • There are a wide variety of codecs and player types. Flash is still the dominant Web-only playback runtime, but it features a variety of codecs. It’s also common to see H.264/AVC as the primary codec for Apple’s iOS devices. And the coming HTML5 wave includes WebM, Ogg Theora and H.264/AVC as natively supported codecs, depending on the browser choice.
  • The median download speed for the nation is 3 Mbps.
  • The primary method for delivering video is streaming, and with the advent of adaptive bit rate technology, companies are creating a better user experience. But adaptive bit rate is based around multiple renditions of the same video, which means cutting it into five-second chunks with multiple bit rates supported.
  • More than 85 percent of browsers support screen resolutions higher than 1024×768, compared to only 26 percent four years ago.


Today, the testing, tuning and optimizing of one video to a given screen involves a lot more work: There are many more codecs, screens and processor types that go into delivering an optimal playback experience to an audience. That’s all forcing video content providers to think about more than just the creation of content.


Publishers now have to consider which video players, which browsers, how much network bandwidth and which supported devices they plan to target. They need one rendition of the file for each combination of target device, bit rate and network they choose to deliver to. It’s not uncommon for the most ambitious video distributors to create and deliver upwards of 100 video renditions per source video asset.


So what is the solution?


The video production industry needs to take a strong guiding hand to educate and inform content creators what their choices are, how they might plan efficient strategies to meet their goals, and how to future-proof their infrastructure for what are undoubtedly irreversible trends.

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