For online video to become a serious business, watching content needs to be a reliable, high-quality experience. In recent years, picture quality, accessibility across platforms and devices, player functionality and content availability have dramatically improved. Today, it’s (thankfully) a very rare occasion when you come across a video that asks you to stop and install RealPlayer. But frequently updating plug-ins, buffering, jerkiness, and low-quality pictures continue to be a few unhappy aspects of watching online video.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to clean up all these problems, especially because many of them result from complications and hang-ups on the video watcher’s computer or Internet connection. That’s why many companies are turning toward adaptive bitrate streaming, a technique of detecting a watcher’s bandwidth and CPU capabilities in real time and then adjusting the quality of a video stream. That requires encoding a single video at multiple bitrates and switching to the most appropriate one on a moment-by-moment basis. The result: very little buffering, fast start time and a good experience for both high-end and low-end connections.
Demoed by just about every player at the NAB Show in April, and announced by Apple on Monday, adaptive bitrate streaming is hitting the premium video market now and should be widely adopted by the end of the year.
While industry veterans may note that similar solutions were attempted by Microsoft and RealNetworks in the late ’90s, the early efforts were never very successful at switching between streams behind the scenes. The company that brought adaptive streaming back into vogue by doing it right was Move Networks, an American Fork, Utah-based startup that around 2006 developed technology to chunk videos into “streamlets” and deliver them over HTTP.
HTTP delivery means video files are treated like any other file and can be transferred in chunks through individual sessions. It is seen as less expensive than traditional streaming, though in some cases it may be less secure or reliable. Traditional streaming, aka RTSP (real-time streaming protocol) and RTMP (Adobe’s real-time messaging protocol) maintains a single real-time session between a client and a server.