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Top Tools for Streaming Internet Video

We talked to people to see which streaming video products they prefer, and why. You can use their experiences to help you decide what type of streaming software will best fit your needs.

Last Fall, more than a million Americans tuned to their computers to watch President Bill Clinton's videotaped testimony for the White House sex scandal. Why did these Americans tune to their computers instead of their televisions? The answer lies in streaming video. Streaming video is an exciting Internet technology that allows nearly anyone the opportunity to broadcast video to a worldwide audience. While most people don't have the high-speed Internet connection needed to serve streamed video, many companies will serve your video for you. You may not get the huge audience that The President's testimony drew, but with streaming video, it's possible for just about any home videographer to set up a virtual home broadcasting studio to make videos available to the world without having to deal with broadcasters, public television stations or the FCC. In short, it's a wonderful opportunity for video to become more democratized than it ever has been in the past.

In this article, we'll talk to people to see which streaming video products they prefer, and why. You can use their experiences to help you decide what type of streaming software will best fit your needs. Along the way we'll look at the streaming video marketplace--companies that currently make the technology available, and some of the features of each. In this way, we hope to assist you in using this exciting new technology to reach a wider audience than you ever thought possible

Technical Issues
Before we get started, let's cover a few basics of streaming video technology as it exists today. Right now, if you have Internet access, you can easily download a variety of plug-ins for your Web browser that allow you to play streamed video on your computer. Most of them are absolutely free, and require no technical expertise beyond the ability to download and install a program on your computer. Once you install the software, you're ready to sample a few streaming video sites. Good initial stopping points include www.cnn.com, www.broadcast.com and www.real.com/realguide/ (See Sidebar for more examples).

As you surf around the Web, however, you'll notice that different sites use different types of streaming video technology. Some make use of RealNetworks' RealMedia software, while others use Xing StreamWorks or Microsoft NetShow software. This is because streaming video is a relatively new concept. Just as home video technology had its Beta/VHS wars in the early days, streaming video technology has yet to settle on a single standard for Internet video transmission.

After you've viewed several streaming videos on the Web, you'll note that the technology is far from mature. Small screen sizes and low frame rates still plague the software for most users. Many of the people interviewed for this article expressed frustration with the existing data transfer speeds of the Internet. Still, the future promise of streaming video is great, because we can expect the speed of home user's Internet connections to increase dramatically in the next few years. When the speed increases, we will have larger, smoother-playing videos with better-sounding audio available on our Web sites. However, until that time comes, we'll have to content ourselves with the limited data rates that are currently available.

At any rate, we're not here to discuss viewing streaming video; we're here to discuss the various products available for serving streaming video to your audience. Currently, Vivo Software's VivoActive, Microsoft's NetShow, Xing Technology's StreamWorks and RealNetworks' RealMedia split the marketplace with RealMedia and NetShow being the dominant players. For most videographers, setting up and maintaining a highly-technical Web server capable of streaming video would be an expensive and time-consuming task. Luckily, there are companies that specialize in providing hosting services for streamed video. If you have a Web site, your ISP may already support one of the streaming formats.

Server? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Server
As we just mentioned, streaming video works best if you use a computer that is especially set up to serve video. They call this computer a streaming server. It is usually a separate computer than the Web server computer, because transmitting the video can require a serious amount of computer horsepower, and a streaming server can take advantage of more methods of transmitting information over the Internet (called protocols) than a Web server. However, if you don't plan to have a large number of viewers, you can stream video from a regular Web server. Such programs as VivoActive VideoNow ($149) and Geo Interactive Emblaze VideoPro ($295), in fact, do not even use a streaming server. Emblaze VideoPro doesn't even use a player, it automatically loads one using Java when a viewer starts a video.

VideoNow works on any Web server using the HTTP (Hyper Text Transport Protocol) protocol that the Web uses. This means that you can simply add your VideoNow files into your Web site. Though this method has some drawbacks in terms of playback quality and number of users that it can serve, it's the easiest way for anybody with a Web site to stream audio and video to the world.

Low cost and ease of use were foremost in Kimberlee Grant's mind when she decided to use VideoNow to add video content to her up-and-coming Web 'zine. She's working on a way to stream video and animation content on her Web site as a means of learning the best way to incorporate the streaming video medium into Web content. She adds, "I looked into other streaming video solutions, but I didn't care for the prices I encountered, nor for the complicated server requirements. I just wanted to stream video from my site, and VideoNow did that for me, at a level of quality that's watchable."

RealNetworks, the makers of RealMedia, acquired Vivo Software about a year ago. The two products are distinct, with VideoNow being an entry-level serverless product, and RealMedia offering a professional-level multiple-viewer product, so the two products have a path for existing side by side.

Streaming MPEGs
One of the first companies to offer a streaming media solution for the Web was Xing Technology. Xing Technology's early success in the field of MPEG video and audio encoding led to the development of StreamWorks. Unlike most streaming applications, which require you to convert your video from a QuickTime, MPEG or Video for Windows file into a proprietary streaming format (such as Microsoft's Advanced Streaming Format, or RealNetwork's RealMedia Format), StreamWorks streams MPEGs. StreamWorks supports MPEG-1 video, MPEG-1 Layer 3 audio (.MP3s) and MPEG-2 audio.

To get an idea of how the StreamWorks software operates in practice, we spoke with some of the techies at Internetwork Broadcasting (www.internetwork.com), a company that helps corporations, organizations and individuals place their streaming audio and video programming onto the Internet. Current clients of Internetwork Broadcasting include the College Radio Network (an all-audio offering) and Junior Dub's Irie Reggae page, which regularly streams live reggae events to the world. On the whole, Internetwork's employees reported that Xing's StreamWorks Live software is easy to use, and provides a high-quality stream--especially in the audio realm.

Xing uses a pricing structure based on the number of people you want to be able to serve at one time. Currently, Xing's StreamWorks Live costs $3,000 per 50-seat license (or 50 simultaneous users). For each additional 50 seats, Xing charges an additional $1,500. This pricing structure is reflective of the company's current marketing goals: corporate and educational intranets. The production of streaming video files for Web or intranet delivery via StreamWorks is very simple and inexpensive. To use the StreamWorks encoder, you need to convert your existing QuickTime or Video for Windows files into an MPEG-compressed file. This can be done using Xing's MPEG Encoder ($249. See Benchmarks, January 1999), or any of the other MPEG encoders available on the market. If you plan to stream video, and don't want to have to deal with converting your video into a non-MPEG format, finding a Streaming Video Provider that uses StreamWorks could be your best bet.

Battle Between Two Giants
Since the introduction of streaming video, many things have changed in the market. The most obvious change is in the corporate playing field. While two years ago there were 10-15 companies with streaming software, that number dwindled through corporate buyouts. Microsoft bought Vosaic, and RealNetworks, at the time known as Progressive Networks, bought VivoActive. VDOLive, the first company to offer streaming of live events shifted focus to videoconferencing, while other companies failed to gain enough users to gather a foothold in the market. Today, there are two serious contenders left in this young market: RealNetworks and Microsoft.

Recently, RealNetworks' grouped together their highly successful RealVideo and RealAudio streaming technologies under the single name of RealMedia. Now, a series of corporate partnerships and power-plays has helped place RealNetworks in the forefront among streaming video software companies. Currently, about 85 percent of all sites that stream video use RealNetworks software.

RealNetworks offers a variety of products--from the free RealPlayer browser plug-in, to a full line of RealSystem G2 server software packages. To get started right away learning how to stream video or audio, RealNetworks offers their Basic Server and RealProducer Encoder software as free downloads from their Web site. The Basic Server can handle up to 25 streams of RealAudio and/or RealVideo. Upgrading to the Basic Server Plus ($695) increases the number of available streams to 40, and includes several software enhancements. The Basic Server Plus includes RealProducer Plus, a content creation and publishing application. The Basic Server Plus also offers optional support for RealFlash animations for an additional $295.

RealNetworks also offers a number of pre-configured software solutions for a variety of specific streaming media applications: the Classroom Solution, the Intranet Server, the Hosting Solution and the Commerce Solution. (Prices for these applications vary widely, from $1,895 for the Classroom Solution to $21,595 for the full-blown Internet Solution, which includes support for up to 400 simultaneous streams.)

On the content-creation side, RealNetworks offers RealProducer Plus G2 software ($150). This software incorporates scalable data rates and encoding for a wide variety of file types (including real-time sources as well as .AVI, .WAV, .MOV, .QT, .AU, and .MPG files). This software also includes the ability to create animation, video or audio content fully embedded in the HTML code. This allows for the triggering of HTML commands as the video or audio content streams--including the display of new pictures and text information at specific times.

To get an idea of how RealMedia's streaming video production and server software titles compare to their competitors, we spoke with Jo Sager of JamTV, a hip music/streaming video site (www.jamtv.com). JamTV offers a wide variety of streaming audio and video content, as well as music and entertainment news, tour dates, live webcasts and other information for the music enthusiast. According to Sager, one of the most appealing aspects of RealNetworks' software is accessibility. In her words, "It is fairly user friendly, and can be learned quickly and easily by just about anybody." Jo also had the following advice for those who are thinking of going the streaming-video route, "Experiment with all the tools and gadgets out there to see what works best for you. Also, don't forget to test, test, test."

Of course, any great change in the Web-based digital media creation and delivery marketplace must include the world's biggest software production company--Microsoft. Their creation and promotion of Advanced Streaming Format (.ASF), a single standard streaming-media file format, has become a significant part of the recent Microsoft anti-trust lawsuits. The fact that Microsoft offers the tools to create .ASF files from existing audio or video content as a part of its free Windows Media Player software has gotten plenty of media-creation software companies up in arms. To further the debate, Microsoft also offers NetShow Services as a free upgrade for owners of Windows NT Server, thus enabling anyone with a video capture card and a capable server to create and stream NetShow content for free.

NetShow Tools includes additional tools for encoding .asf files and creating scripts for embedded HTML commands. Also available for purchase from Microsoft is the Netshow Theater Server, which allows broadcasting of high-quality MPEG and MPEG-2 content over a high-bandwidth network. The potential applications include education, video-on-demand for hotels and airlines, and corporate intranets. NetShow Theater Server sells for $2,499 plus an additional charge per client accessing NetShow (5 licenses sell for $499; 20 licenses, $1,779).

The Battle Rages
At the time of this writing, the battles between Microsoft and RealNetworks for supremacy in the streaming video market show no signs of abating. The winner in this all-out war is you. Right now, if you have access to the video-capture and server technology you need, it's possible for you to create your own streaming video files for little or no initial investment. So get out there and start building your own streaming video programs today.

Tags:  April 1999
Joe
McCleskey
Thu, 04/01/1999 - 12:00am