Friday, May 2, 2014

Can Paid Live Survive? YouTube Goes Free Again!

A snapshot of the Live Online Video space today – and where we may be headed tomorrow.

In 2001 I decided that starting a company that specialized in online video was a good idea – and it was. I partnered up with some smart people and ran a nice, profitable company for many years. Our products were well received, our technology was strong, we grew behind revenue with no debt – and our customers were (as a rule) happy with our service and willing to pay. Until they day they weren’t – which was when they discovered our same service for free.

The free service was called YouTube – and while it didn’t offer all the refinements that we had added to the online video experience, it had one important, unbeatable differentiator: it was free. Did I mention free?  – as in no cost, nada, nothing. We had to pay for servers, rack space, bandwidth, offices and people…all the normal expenses associated with a normal business, and apparently, they didn’t. So like paying for browsers, paying for email, paying for word processing – I slowly slipped into that category of people who had been trampled by advancing technology. I didn’t feel TOO bad, while I did lose 95% of my client base, it was at the hands of the biggest kid on the block: Google / YouTube. It wasn’t like I got beat up by a punk.

So now I’m a bit more careful with my tech ventures – I keep holding up the “what if this was free?” filter when looking at new opportunities. And really, any smart technology company should – the playing field is littered with discarded corpses of formerly brilliant companies that were wiped out by a single word: free.

I’ve kept close to developments on YouTube – because what was essentially my enemy, is now my friend. If others can use this free technology for their business ventures, why couldn’t I put it to use for my own purposes? I began building websites and YouTube channels that increased client exposure on Google organically due to Google’s love of its latest acquisition: YouTube. While the SEO driver was strong, it was hard to get clients to commit to an ongoing schedule of video production – and that’s what it takes to make the SEO / Google / YouTube magic happen. You can’t just do one video, put it up and step back in anticipation of the stampede – it’s an ongoing process.

By now I was doing quite a bit of production in the live space using Internap (paid) and a host of free streaming services to distribute my productions. I had a row of PCs – when we started a webcast I would literally fire up half a dozen encoding systems and stream out to the world via Ustream, Livestream, Justin.TV and others. I loved the immediacy of live webcasting, you got audience response right away not days later. It reminded me of live television but, considering most of the live services I was using were free, without the BIG MONEY risk. I did become an expert of sorts at the variety of live free streaming portals. YouTube announced it was going into the free live streaming space – but to qualify you had to have a billion subscribers – which was an odd measure: people who liked video-on-demand qualified you to stream live. I (and most of the rest of the live streaming world) simply ignored the option.

Well, a strange thing happened – YouTube kept lowering the bar for “Live Event” approval until they finally dropped it to almost nothing a few weeks ago. If you have no copyright violations and can verify with an SMS message (hint: you can use the same number for multiple accounts) you can stream live on YouTube. The largest cloud video network on the planet is now yours to use for free! It’s amazing – you can use Hangouts for quick-n-dirty webcasts, or go into a more complex setup mode for real professional webcasting. You can embed the streams, record them to the channel for VOD viewing – everything all for free. And let’s face it; you were going to upload a version of your webcast to YouTube anyway for endless free playback and SEO benefits, right?

In thinking about this development – some other companies that I’ve used in the past popped into my mind, namely Ustream, Livestream, Justin.TV and a host of other live webcasting platforms. Most of these are free – but are advertiser sponsored ad the “free” level. If you upgrade to a monthly fee, you can eliminate advertising and unlock other features depending upon how far you go. There are (of course) CDNs which charge dearly for live events – their mantra is the more people who watch, the more bandwidth you use and the more money you pay - much like the pricing schedule my company had many years ago that we finally gave up on. As far as I can tell, you can opt for no advertising on free YouTube streaming and you can embed the player on to any page you want – so you’re not even forcing exposure to display advertising. I suppose the ubiquitous YouTube branding hangs around – but really, haven’t we all but shut that out of our collective consciousness?

So the question remains – what will happen to the advertiser-supported free live streaming services (Ustream, Livestream, Justin, etc.) and how will this all affect the big-money live streaming guys (Limelight, Akamai, Internap. etc.)? While the latter have weathered the rise of free VOD by adding additional services and features such as edge serving, content optimization and general media hosting – one has to ask: what’s the benefit of using Ustream or Livestream over YouTube Live? Will the lure of 100% free (and endless market penetration) upset the game for ad-paid and cash-paid live streaming? Will their current clients begin making those phone calls I heard several years ago (repeated many times) “We love you guys – but this service is FREE!” or is the space big enough these days that everyone gets to stay at the table? If history is going to repeat itself – then there are several established companies who are going to hope YOU (Mr. Live Content Creator) never read this article!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Three Really Big Deals (you may have missed)

Online video is now everywhere – mobile devices, over-the-top boxes (Roku, etc.), gaming systems and more. In fact, it’s become such a standard of everyday life that it may be hard to stay abreast of all the cool technology changes that have occurred in the past year or so. And it’s understandable – once broadcast TV became a household item, the technology essentially stood still for almost 40 years while we were obsessed with content: network shows, primetime, live newscasts, serials, stars – it’s no wonder the technology of the medium stagnated while we focused on the living room screen.

But the web is all about multitasking and parallel lines of development – so while we see more (and better!) content filling up our viewing time from sources we never imagined even five years ago (Netflix Originals, AMC, FX and a host of other new entries in the content space) – technology has continued to march forward on the background, even while this new parade of visual distractions keeps us focused on the now rather than the tomorrow.

Anyway, I spend a lot of time in this space – and I thought I ‘d take this opportunity to offer up my Top Three Technologies that you may have missed while watching Game of Thrones or Sons of Anarchy. Here’s the list (and why they’re important):

1) - At first you might say “what’s the big deal about THIS?”, but it’s really a game changer. Previously, the ability to manage large amounts of content in a real-time, scheduled environment was limited to Broadcast and Cable Facilities operating giant, expensive “playout” machines. Well, you may not have the content – but now everyone can be their own TV station complete with scheduling, commercial insertion, graphics overlay…all for around $400. Ok, while it’s true that no one might want to watch an endless channel of your home movies and cell phone clips – it feels good knowing you can do it! For those who don’t have the OTHER end of a broadcast facility lying around their backyard – there’s who feature Unistreamer Lite for around $600 which allows you to create a 24 hour-a-day channel (like the Broadcastplay folks) AND sends that stream directly to YouTube Live or a myriad of other live streaming services. I can’t personally vouch for either of these products as I simply don’t have enough compelling video clips to put them through their  “24 hour” paces – but someday…

2) MPEG-DASH – Another geek-only term that will really change the streaming / online industry. Already embedded in many current streaming platforms, MPEG-DASH stands for Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP. What does this really mean? It means that the bandwidth / size / device / operating system nightmares that have plagued streaming video in the past are coming to an end. This open-source, player agnostic codec allows you to stream over HTTP – the same protocol as web pages while taking into account network issues – so your cell phone isn’t trying to play back a file encoded for HD playback on the big screen. This will make people’s lives a better place to be – and perhaps, one day in the distance future a small child will ask “Mommy, what’s buffering?” .

3) WebRTC – This is the killer technology you’ve never heard of, simply because many people just don’t know it’s there. WebRTC stands for Web (like internet, right?) Real-Time Communications – which essentially means that the video conferencing industry had better find something else to do. It seems Google bought a cool company that had a browser plug-in (think app for your browser) that allows browsers to talk to each other using VIDEO directly – without going through a bunch of encoding and de-coding and streaming servers and voodoo. And in their wisdom, Google just gave it away. They made it part of the Chrome browser environment so it works really well on PCs running Chrome and Android devices. It also works on some other lesser browsers but still hasn’t been adopted by Internet Explorer or Safari (even though the end product resembles Face-Time on an iPad) – BUT industry pundits say it’s only a matter of time.

So you can now run your own automated, 24-hour-a-day television station that doesn’t buffer while videochatting  directly with your friends through a chrome browser. Is the future a great place or what?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Die is (Chrome) Cast!

Talk about the game changer that no one saw coming…all of a sudden $35 hooks you into an endless universe of programming that was previous locked on the “little screen”. I’m talking about Chromecast, of course – the dongle that turns your monster HD living room video delivery device (fogey-speak: “TV”) into a jukebox of video content. How did we miss seeing this one?

Simple. If we rewind several years, we all know that it takes a really big and complex box with a monthly service charge (“Cable TV”) and rental fee (“Set-top Box”) to deliver quality programming. I don’t know about you, but my cable company bill is upwards of $200 a month and I only get a few Premium Channels. Even the concept of Premium Channels now seems sort or quaint and antiquated in light of recent developments. (Aside: The Museum of Once-Cool but Now Useless Devices featuring the Veg-O-Matic, The Atari Game Console and the Digital Set-Top Box) BECAUSE timing is everything, right? Google released Google TV (what?) and some kind of audio cube thing and some other hardware stuff that all went “thud” in the great retail space.

Apple made some inroads with Apple TV and iPad / iPhone connectivity and streaming – but they never posed a real threat to Big Cable. Macs as computers still remained niche and even though the iPad soared in popularity, it was essentially a really big iPhone. Google birthed Android – which could run on anything (harkening back to the original days of Java) and all of a sudden Netflix, Hulu and their brethren rounded the corner with alternative content to Big Cable – but it was hard to make the connection to the LCD in the living room.

I had one of the first Droids in the Littleton area, and as soon as the RAZR came out, I got one! (Big mistake, because as it turns out the first RAZRs had a thirty minute battery life – and insult was added to injury but the release of RAZR MAXX at the same price point three months later.) but the big deal (I thought) about the RAZR was HDMI connectivity. I could now shoot HD video and watch it on my living room screen – and I could watch whatever video was on my phone on the big screen. True confession time: even though I thought I would use this all the time, I used it maybe five times in the last two years, and generally when Grandparents were present. Instead I opted for a combination of Big Cable, a PS3 (when the kid was home) and a $50 Western Digital device called the NEOTV (when the kid wasn’t home). I liked NEOTV, and while it has the stuff I wanted – it also was hooked into some real questionable content AND I couldn’t customize it. It was good for Netflix and that was that.

I purchased some wacky Android devices from China and played around with them. They were cool for doing video playback from MP4 files loaded to a stick – but their performance with Netflix & YouTube was jerky and inconsistent – regardless of browser or app usage. Fun toys – but not ready for prime time.

I just got done watching a promo on YouTube for Chromecast – and I have to say I was impressed, so impressed, I went to Google and typed in “buy chromecast” – where I was immediately linked up with a list of Best Buys in my area that had the device – and guess what I’m doing on the way home from work tonight? I’ve got a Nexus 7 (android tablet) that I use for reading at night, and I’m going to move that into the living room and see what all my online favorites look like on the big screen – without cords!

(More to come…)