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Sunday, October 26, 2014

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Analysis for 'Swarmcast'

  • Live Streaming Video is Finding Its Groove

    Have you noticed that live streaming video is getting more and more popular? Lately, sports in particular have been leading the charge, with live streams of PGA golf, US Open tennis, NFL football, Major League Baseball games and British soccer, among others. But sports are hardly the only area where live video streaming is taking off.

    Hang out for a few minutes at LiveStream, Ustream, Stickam and Justin.tv, to name a few, and you'll see all manner of live news, talk and business shows, some of which are actually quite good. Of course, you'll also find plenty of the mundane/ridiculous, like webcams pointed mutely at someone's backyard laundry or at London's Tower Bridge. Live streaming is definitely a corner of the market where video has been democratized!

    Two key catalysts for this part of the live streaming market have been mobile access (with the iPhone and other smartphones' video capture and playback driving the market) and social media/video sharing (with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others providing instant outlets). A lot of this activity is Flash-based. As both mobile and social trends gain ground, we can expect even more activity in this segment.

    Aside from sports, live streaming is also gaining traction for high-profile events, with some companies moving to support this end of the market. For example, today Kyte, which positions itself as a full mobile and online video platform, is introducing "Kyte Live Pro," an add-on that allows HD live streaming from multiple sources and encoding using Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder.

    I chatted with Gannon Hall, Kyte's COO yesterday, who explained that while "authentic" content - mainly short live clips - remain popular, Kyte's customers have also been asking for the ability to live stream longer-form events in HD. For example, TV Guide is using Kyte Live Pro this Sunday night to stream the Emmys red carpet pre-show online. Gannon expects other video platform companies, recognizing the opportunity, will start to offer live HD streaming as well. Swarmcast is one company I'm aware of that has made a name for itself broadcasting high-profile live events over the years. Microsoft is also putting a big push behind live, with its Smooth Streaming product.

    Moving even further up-market, there's also a huge amount of live video streaming happening among enterprises, educational institutions and government agencies. These entities have much tighter requirements, often needing an on-premise, behind-the-firewall configuration for capture, broadcast and viewing, multi-location secure distribution, transcoding into various formats, integration with other network and other IT components, and mission-critical reliability.

    The leader in this part of the market is a company called VBrick (according to research compiled by Frost & Sullivan), whose executives I've spoken to a couple of times recently. VBrick has over 6,000 customers in 56 countries, including 50 Fortune 500 companies, 100 Federal agencies and 900 schools, among others. The range of VBrick uses includes executive broadcasts, training and education, digital signage and surveillance and monitoring, to name a few.

    VBrick deploys a hardware appliance that does video capture and transcoding into multiple formats, high-quality distribution over varied networks (LAN, WAN, Internet) and secure viewing at desktops or conference rooms. VBrick also offers "VBoss," which is a SaaS alternative for less frequent/more budget-minded users.

    To date, most online video has been consumed on-demand. But this appears to be changing fast. With nearly infinite use cases and technology providers addressing all potential market segments, live video streaming appears poised for lots of growth ahead.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.

     
  • 4 Items Worth Noting from the Week of August 10th

    Following are 4 news items worth noting from the week of August 10th:

    Discovery Channel signs onto Comcast On Demand Online trial - Comcast added yet another cable programmer this week to the roster of those participating in its TV Everywhere trial. Discovery will make available episodes of "Man vs. Wild," "Swords," "Stormchasers" and "Verminators" though with some delayed windows that take a little edge off their appeal. Comcast has made a ton of progress corralling networks for its trial, but 4 of the big 5 cable network owners - Disney, Fox, NBCU and Viacom - remain holdouts. No coincidence that the first 3 are Hulu's owners.

    Swarmcast powers MLB.TV on Roku, introduces "Autobahn Live for CE" - Following on Roku's announcement this week that it is offering MLB.TV, Swarmcast announced it was powering the service through a new offering called "Autobahn Live for CE." Swarmcast's COO Chad Tippin explained to me that integrating with CE devices that drive broadband/TV convergence is a key company goal. Chad is confident that Swarmcast's high-quality, scalable HTTP streaming service will work on these various CE devices, and that as the number of them deployed swells, a new "long tail of live sports" will flourish. Live sports and events (e.g. concerts) could be a significant contributor to device adoption. For example, picture getting a coupon for $50 off the purchase of a Roku when you buy a pay-per-view of a streaming blockbuster concert.

    Babelgum grows to nearly 1.7 million unique visitors in July, 2009 - I heard from Michael Rosen, EVP and Chief Revenue Officer at Babelgum this week, with news that the site has grown to nearly 1.7 million unique visitors in July (comScore), following its U.S. launch in April. I profiled Babelgum back in April and was cautiously optimistic about its approach to curate high-quality, independently-produced video into 5 channels (music, film, comedy, Our Earth and Metropolis). The site is fully ad-supported. Babelgum's growth comes on top of a slew of made-for-broadband video initiatives I detailed recently. The NY Times also had a great story this week on how independent filmmakers are taking distribution into their own hands. Despite the recession, this corner of the broadband market seems to be hanging in there.

    Zune HD coming Sept 15th - Microsoft at last announced this week that the Zune HD digital media player will be in retail on Sept 15th, with pre-orders now being accepted. Zune HD introduces a touch-screen interface, 720p video playback, HD radio and other goodies. It is sure to raise the visibility of high-quality portable video another notch. But I find myself wondering: as the iPhone and other smartphones incorporate video playback (and recording) into one device, how large is the market for standalone high-end media players like Zune? Related, the iPhone's risk of cannibalizing the iPod has become a hot topic recently. Things to ponder: will users want to carry 2 devices? Or might they appreciate the ability to drain their battery watching video without risking the loss of their cell phone? Lots of different things in play.

     
  • Video Quality Keeps Improving - What's it All Mean?

    Is it just me, or are you also noticing that the quality of your online video experience is getting consistently better and better? Even though I'm totally immersed in the space, periodically I will find myself watching something online and still think to myself, "This quality is just unreal!"

    I've had the experience of watching some or all of the following recently: the Democratic convention on demconvention.com, the movie "Ordinary People" on Hulu, swimming on NBCOlympics.com, trailers on Fancast and "Eli Stone" on ABC.com, among others. In each case, the quality of the video is outstanding, even in full screen mode.

    All of this is due to tremendous innovation in the content delivery world. This includes not only traditional CDNs such as Akamai, Limelight, Level 3, CDNetworks and others, but a raft of other players specifically focused on optimizing video delivery quality such as Move Networks, Swarmcast, Digital Fountain, Vusion, BitGravity and others. Further enhancing the experience are improvements in media players like Windows Media, Flash, QuickTime and more recently Silverlight.

    The innovation and investment in this space shows no signs of abating. I was reminded of this just last week in a call with Perry Wu, CEO and co-founder of BitGravity, which yesterday announced a strategic relationship and investment from Tata Communications (part of Tata Group, the massive Indian conglomerate).

    Perry explained that the underlying theme of the deal is to deliver video at consistently high quality on a global basis. That aspiration fits with the increasingly international-oriented distribution strategies I hear about from content providers. While fast-growing international markets have been core growth drivers for content companies, frictionless and cost-effective IP delivery is creating a whole new ball game. I expect international reach - and the ability to monetize with locally-appropriate advertising - to become more and more important.

    Meanwhile, back in the U.S. surging video quality means the bar is getting higher for all video providers. Delivering video without a full-screen option, or where the audio and video aren't synched perfectly, or where rewind/instant play isn't available will soon be perceived as sub-par. For budget-minded broadband content startups this will require heavier investments in delivery services if they're to be taken seriously.

    For traditional networks and the Hollywood community, higher quality broadband delivery means the shift from on-air to online consumption will only accelerate. As more consumers come to see broadband as a legitimate alternative, they'll continue modifying their behaviors. With these shifting eyeballs comes a slew of economic challenges (the "analog dollars to digital pennies" anxiety) that must be urgently addressed.

    Lastly, for the owners of local broadband networks (cable operators, telcos, etc.) surging video quality increases the pressure on their networks' delivery capacity. When a handful of users are watching high-quality long-form video that's one thing. But what happens when it's the norm? Bandwidth management and net neutrality debates are sure to intensify.

    While all of these uncertainties swirl, consumers are gleefully seeing a high-quality video Internet unfold that just a few years ago would have seemed unimaginable.

    What do you think? Post a comment.

     
  • Akamai - full banner - 9-17-14
  • Longer-Form Live Streaming Events Get Traction

    Here's another example of the multiple cross-currents in the broadband video market.

    Just last week I reviewed new Magid research showing that short-form dominates broadband video consumption. Now this week I received news from Swarmcast which provides a high-quality streaming delivery platform, revealing that the average length of live streams it's serving for its customers now averages more than 75 minutes, suggesting the long-form opportunity is now firming up. An apparent contradiction? Yes. An actual contradiction? No.

    What's happening is that while short-form still accounts for the vast majority of viewing instances, there are now marquee events from Swarmcast customers like MLB.com being streamed live that are generating sustained viewership. Swarmcast provides multiple examples of events that it has streamed which lead to the 75 minute average:

    • July 15 - All-Star Game
    • July 14 - Home Run Derby
    • July 3-6 - Rothbury Music Festival
    • June 28 - Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday celebration

    I think the success in live streaming events speaks to broadband's convenience. While TV is clearly the preferred viewing device, if you don't have access to one when a compelling event is on, or that content provider has chosen to stream it instead of broadcasting it, broadband is incredibly convenient.

    Even so, what's traditionally held back longer-form consumption is low-quality delivery. This is the problem Swarmcast has focused on. I've seen examples of some of their events and the quality is impressive, even at scale. So as content providers recognize that they can indeed stream high-quality long-form events, interest will build. The next key challenge of course will be monetize these streams.

    MLB has been a poster child for succeeding with the subscription model, leveraging its loyal fan base and exclusive games. While their brand is unique, it seems like there should also be pay-per-view opportunities for high-profile live events, akin to what has worked on cable (e.g. wrestling, boxing, music, etc.). Outside of the paid model, if audiences can be built for free events, advertisers will also take interest.

    Swarmcast's customers' success in longer-form live streaming is again showing that despite the current popularity of short-form, broadband is still evolving, opening up diverse opportunities for content providers.

    What do you think? Post a comment.

     
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