We are excited about streaming video. In case you haven’t heard, streaming video is a real-time Internet video distribution solution. In other words, it allows you to send or receive video over the Internet. Streaming video is available "on demand," that is, whenever users request it. Many see it as the Holy Grail for video distribution. It provides instant gratification for viewers. As they surf along the Internet, they stumble onto a web page with streaming video, click on an icon and the video begins playing. Sounds incredible doesn’t it?
Well there are some drawbacks. Naturally, users must first download and install the free software. Streaming video over the 33.6Kbps or 56Kbps phone modem most home computers use to connect to the Internet doesn’t look like the video that most of us are accustomed to seeing. It appears in a small window, often smaller than one-fourth the size of the computer screen. The video is far below VHS quality with a grainy image, jumpy motion and poor sound quality. If you use VHS’s quality as the basic measuring stick, then streaming video over a phone modem isn’t really video at all. It’s more like a demonstration of future technology.
As your Internet connection gets faster, the quality gets better. Many people now are able to view streaming video with a 56Kbps modem. Some have a faster Internet connection called ISDN, which runs at 128Kbps and makes streaming video look a little better. A few people have T1 lines, which runs at 1.5Mbps (1.5 million bits per second) and can stream VHS-quality video, but this type of service can cost over $1500 per month.
These bandwidth limitations should become less of a problem as Internet connections get faster via new connectivity options. Analog phone lines have inherently slow speed, but new technologies like xDSL are fast and affordable. Many communities actually have Internet access over the same coaxial cable that is used to receive cable TV. Another high-bandwidth option is Internet connectivity via satellite. But, since very few people connect to the Internet via these high-bandwidth solutions, streaming video is not very useful today.
Other methods of transmitting video over the Internet are the QuickTime and MPEG file formats for compressed video. QuickTime was developed by Apple. MPEG is a worldwide standard pioneered by the Moving Pictures Experts Group. The quality of these formats is currently much higher than streaming video, but still not quite as good as VHS. Many people, including filmmaker George Lucas, believe that QuickTime is better than MPEG. There is a newer version of MPEG (creatively named MPEG-2), which is superior to VHS. MPEG-2 is the video standard used for DVD. As far as delivering MPEG over the Internet goes, it looks much better than streaming video. The disadvantage of MPEG is that it’s not streamed. It is not available immediately on-demand and doesn’t deliver instant gratification. It is known as a download now/play later solution.
It takes several minutes to download one minute of video. Since there is a long delay while the video is downloading, viewers must occupy themselves by doing something else. In the past, QuickTime was a download now/play later solution, but the upcoming version (QuickTime 4) will also support streaming.
The Internet tends to be an instantaneous medium. We search for a Web site, we find it, we obtain the content (usually text, which is quick to view) and then we move onto the next Web page. If we look to the Internet for video, it’ll be a couple of years before we can have that same instant gratification. But waiting is not a foreign concept to those who use the Internet. We make many requests for things on the Internet that are not available immediately.
In a few short years, Amazon.com has become a world leader selling books via the Internet. These are real books, not web pages. They ship them UPS and the books arrive (at the earliest) the following day. No one expects Amazon.com to deliver the books instantly (the Star Trek transporter does not exist–yet), therefore no one complains about the "slow delivery" of books from Amazon.com.
A few companies are working on something called "scheduled download." This allows Web surfers to choose videos for later download, say while they sleep. The delay in gratification could be half a day. Although this concept has been in use for a while as a general Internet utility (you can download a shareware version of a download scheduler at www.tucows.com), there hasn’t been one made with video in mind. By the time that you read this, software for scheduled download of MPEG video may be available. When you get to a Web page with video available, you might see two buttons: one says "stream it to me now, I don’t care if the video is poor," while the other says "get it for me later, I like my video to look like TV."
GET IT FOR ME LATER video might change everything that we know about distributing "true" video over the Internet.