Guest Post: Online Video Today: How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go
By Dave Stubenvoll, Co-founder and CEO of Wowza Media Systems.
The recent introduction of Apple's iPad has re-opened discussion around Flash and Flash support, or rather, Apple devices' lack thereof. While this discussion brings to light the conflict between the two corporate agendas of Adobe and Apple, it isn't really about Flash or a methodology that Apple picked for video delivery. What it does begin to lay out, however, is a much larger discussion about online video. The discussion widens even further as supporters of alternative technologies and approaches like Silverlight, HTML5, and others begin to chime in with their thoughts on the current and future states of online video.
While each approach has its merits, all of the technology options just mentioned present challenges to the online video industry that may not be obvious right off the bat. One would think that having multiple technology options/platforms would be a good thing for businesses and consumers, and it is, but only when the market dynamics are right for it.
Fact of the matter is that businesses and organizations that want to stream video are forced to make tough decisions on which protocol and player technology to support since it's not economically feasible for most to embrace multiple platforms simultaneously. I'll get further into why this is the situation and how we got here, but first it'll be a good idea for me to share how I see markets evolving so there's some context from which to understand where the Internet video market is today.
My [over]simplified take on the classic evolution of a marketplace starts with a few select innovations grabbing an early foothold and over time segmenting the market into separate camps based on competing technology approaches. In the next phase, these opposing technologies eventually become democratized by some unifying technology or innovation that provides operational efficiency and creates cheaper and more advanced solutions, increased competition and greater opportunity for providers and broader choices for consumers.
Now take this concept of market evolution and apply it to the online video industry. Flash was the obvious winner in this space and for good reason - unlike Microsoft's Windows Media or Apple's QuickTime it didn't require a stand-alone player download and it provided a consistent in-the-browser playback experience, which led to the 98% penetration it now enjoys on the desktop. As the appetite for online video began to explode, other technologies made their way to prominence and the industry started tackling different challenges like delivering video to mobile users and creating a separate set of standards for wireless under the 3GP umbrella. Microsoft introduced Silverlight, a technology architected from scratch for video that is squarely targeting Flash. The iPhone's "full screen" viewing experience with a variant of HTML5 playback really started the video-capable smart phone movement. (Others could do video, but the iPhone made it decent.)
So now we've reached the point where there are competing technologies creating a fragmented market that is just getting itself off the ground. What I find interesting about the evolution of this market is the technologies that have helped us to get to this point. Today, we're in a market dominated by a few technologies that create opposing forces that actually limit the true potential of online video everywhere. The stage is set for democratizing solutions to come in and take things to the next level - that's where my company is, but it's not my intention make this about us. This is more about painting an accurate picture of how the dynamics in the online video market are driving this change.
Look at the historical crop of technologies and where they come from: Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple. None of these companies set out at the beginning with online video as their driving motivator. Adobe with Flash, Microsoft with Silverlight, and Apple with QuickTime and now HTTP streaming on the iPhone (and iPod/iPad) - each of these technologies is not necessarily intended for the greater good of online video, but rather for the advancement of specific corporate agendas. Adobe wants to sell design tools, Microsoft to promote various flavors of Windows OS, Apple to drive device sales and to lock up content within their own walled garden. So when you look at platforms like Flash Media Server and Windows Media Services/Internet Information Services (IIS) they're essentially loss leaders to help their companies achieve other objectives. Mind you, there's nothing wrong or inherently evil about any of this - it is the way of the world. We just need to recognize these are the forces that have shaped the fragmented environment we have here and now.
That is a Catch 22 for many content owners/creators, media companies, CDNs and other businesses that create and distribute online video. Today, these businesses must invest in separate technology infrastructures in order to reach each platform: one for Flash, one for Silverlight, one for Apple, etc. Addressing each format with individual technology investments is not a realistic game plan for deployment into the mainstream and the awaiting masses so eager for anytime, anywhere video.
The demand is there - just look at the growth statistics of online and mobile video consumption in any of Nielsen's recent Three Screen reports - but that's not to say that it's being adequately fulfilled. Simply translate the scenario above to the consumer world: if a content developer or a CDN can only afford to deliver in one format, then it forces consumers to go searching for content rather than it finding them. Case in point, if you want Hulu, Netflix Direct, etc, you're not going to get it on an iPad. In a perfect world, everyone on the media production and delivery side would be able to deliver video across all major streaming platforms, protocols and players. This means consumers would have content come to them wherever they are, rather than the other way around.
The market is in need of a new media delivery solution that unifies existing technologies (i.e. Flash, Silverlight), and makes them more accessible, more flexible, and more cost effective for the businesses that make their living creating and delivering online video to the masses.
Businesses need to be unsaddled from the burden of either relying on one media technology or over-extending themselves by investing in multiple technologies.
Consumers must have video content find them, rather than having to look for it themselves.
The solution will not come from the incumbents that own the major media platforms because that is not what drives their bottom line. The solution will come from companies whose only agenda is to solve the problems that are important to the value chain - content creators/owners, distribution, and the audience - by creating unified media delivery solutions capable of serving video from any codec, over any protocol, to any player.
Only then will the realization of a true Three Screen Vision be achieved.
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As co-founder and CEO of Wowza Media Systems, Dave Stubenvoll is championing concepts and technologies powering the first truly unified media server. Prior to Wowza, he served as an Entrepreneur in Residence/Senior Director at Adobe Systems and previously managed mergers and acquisitions. Stubenvoll, who holds two patents, earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Clarkson University, his JD from Boston College and an MBA from the Carnegie Mellon Graduate School of Industrial Administration.