The Next Big Thing in Video: Adaptive Bitrate Streaming

1Executive Summary

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.

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  1. I am so glad that the powers that be are finally catching up to the fact that people want to watch streaming live content for free. The NCAA stream was some of the coolest products I’ve seen in a while (although it might have decreased my productivity at work).

    Before this type of technology, I would use justin.tv or ustream.tv to watch live sporting events while I was at work (hey – MNF games start at 5pm on the west coast…), but hopefully in the near future, those will be live streamed. TNT did an amazing job at streaming the conference finals for the NBA. They had four different camera that you could watch all at once, or you could choose one and watch it full screen.

    As for adaptive bitrate streaming – very rarely did I have a buffering / quality issue, but then again, it wasn’t streaming in HD. If that’s the way to do it, I say bring it on!

    Has anyone else had any good experiences with live streaming (maybe the DMB concert on Hulu last week)?

  2. Great analysis. The launch of 1080p video streaming to the Xbox 360 by Microsoft drove home to me how important this technology is going to be.

    I’ve been using the Netflix streaming service for some time, which does a good job of adapting to available bandwidth, though I have to say downscaling to their low bitrate the picture quality looks pretty poor on my 42″ plasma (and I have FiOS!).

    My guess is my connection is downscaled not due to FiOS bandwidth, but due to the bottleneck that is the home network (I use a hybrid HomePlug Wifi network). That’s part of the untold story of the streaming to TV: in-home networks will ultimately be the problem.

  3. Paul Walborsky Thursday, June 11, 2009

    @Jon Wirt – I have had some buffering issues (my broadband pipe is from Comcast :) ) so anything that helps stream HD without latency is welcomed.

    @Liz Gannes – Adaptive bitrate streaming seems to be the right and most descriptive term for this technology. Please keep us posted on developments. BTW don’t you think that the new Hulu desktop UI is strikingly similar to that Joost?

    Thoughts?

  4. Andy Tarczon Monday, June 22, 2009

    @Jon Wirt – Jon, I partially agree. While people do want to watch content for free, there does have to be a supporting business model. My colleagues and I have been testing consumer receptivity to broadband video models- whether ad-supported or subscription. Consumer confidence is growing thanks to efforts like Netflix, etc. We do anticipate that more subscription models will emerge that allow consumer access to premium content – in some cases supplementing and other cases supplanting traditional paytv services.

    To Liz’s discussion on adaptive streaming, indeed this is the new battlegorund for delivery. The technology has progressed to the point that a television-quality experience is now being delivered – often in stunning quality. While Move currently enjoys that quality lead, Smooth is rapidly catching up. Will be fun to watch. Thanks for the article.

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