To Improve Video Quality, Some Cut Streaming from Picture

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For a handful of Internet content and technology providers, the answer to the herky-jerky world of Web video involves leaving the streaming behind.

Streaming media, the dominant vehicle used to deliver video across an Internet connection, may be facing a challenge from a new scheme that instead downloads the content onto a user's computer ahead of time.

While it might not offer live footage or video to fit every Web surfer's whim, proponents say download delivery can bring much higher quality video at a lower bandwidth cost.

That's the pitch from Seattle startup Trusted Media Networks Inc. as it enters the hunt for content and portal owners, armed with its Internet video-download technology. Trusted Media is the brainchild of former RealNetworks Inc. chief engineer Alan Lippman, who has set aside that streaming media mindset in favor of a download strategy.

The TrustCast DNA delivery system starts with a piece of client software, which is downloaded onto the user's computer. The software regularly pings a content management server, and when it finds new content it pulls the video files down via Trusted Media's Redundant Array of Inexpensive Networks (RAIN) content delivery system and stores them on the user's hard drive.

Users are notified of the new content via an e-mail or instant messaging service, and then are directed to the content provider's Web site. Once they enter the site, the video clips that are already downloaded onto their computers would automatically play on an embedded media player screen.

"The difference from streaming is that there is sort of a disconnect in our world from when the bits get delivered and when you actually end up viewing them, and that lets us push down content and the client can pull content that is much higher quality," Lippman said. "When you do get to the play point, it doesn't need a streaming server to support it."

ESPN in the game

That has already proven true for ESPN.com, which debuted its "ESPN Motion" video-download service in February. The Motion software, co-developed by ESPN.com and Walt Disney Internet Group also sits on users' hard drives, where it manages file downloads and notifies users of new clips.

When users enter the ESPN.com site they can instantly access any of the Motion video clips on embedded Windows Media Player screens throughout the ESPN portal site. An average of 15 new clips are rotated into the Motion lineup daily, ranging from short-form video highlights to interviews, commentary, previews and TV commercials.

"The great thing about it is the video quality is really pristine," said John Kosner, senior vice president and general manager for ESPN.com. "There is no buffering, there is no launching of a player. So it really comes closest to delivering a sort of TV-quality experience that is really built into the Web page."

That has apparently drawn a crowd of sports fans. So far, 1.9 million ESPN.com visitors have downloaded the software client, and at least 500,000 click into the content each day, according to Kosner.

"Our success with that has been jarring even to me — to get 1.9 million people downloading an application," Kosner said. "I think it has a lot to do with the affinity the sports fans have with ESPN."

Aside from the video quality, one of the strongest arguments for video download schemes is that it cost less for bandwidth than streaming does. Because the content can be downloaded in the middle of the night, when bandwidth costs are lower, Trusted Media's technology can deliver content at one-tenth the price of ordinary streaming media services, Lippman said.

"Now I think we are sort of in the world where they have an economic motivator, and I think we can deliver it at a cost that makes things really appealing," he said.

For ESPN, downloading in the middle of the night does cost less per bit delivered, but offering Motion did require the sports Web site to purchase more bandwidth overall and hire staff to manage the content.

That has been more than offset by the service's popularity among advertisers, though, Kosner said. The sponsor support has Motion running in the black, and puts ESPN.com in a position virtually unheard of in the beleaguered Internet ad world.

"In my experience working here, it is the first time where we have had far more demand than supply from an advertising standpoint," Kosner said. "So it is a healthy development."

Based on that success, ESPN.com is looking to expand the application to more of its content pages, and to cover more types of content. It recently included Motion as part of its new NFL Live online section, and placed Motion video on the ESPN front page, the college football page and the golf index.

The NFL Live debut also sported a new 10-second skip-back button on the Motion player, allowing a sort of instant replay of the clip.

ESPN.com also is working on an update of Motion that will allow customers to tailor the types of sports video they want delivered.

"We've been experimenting with different length of content clips, with different subject matter," Kosner added. "We're constantly looking and trying to improve it — I think in time the ability to add more interactivity to the experience like polling, links."

Motion's success in part shows that users aren't turned away by the inherent delay in getting the video, or by the fact the service can't provide live coverage.

About the experience

"If you stop 10 people on the street I'm not sure that any of them would understand the difference between the download and the streaming unless you took the time to put it to them, and they don't care," Kosner said. "It's really about what that experience is, and we think we can deliver a superior experience through the download."

While ESPN.com has service up and running, Trusted Media faces the challenge of attracting similar content providers to its technology. Funded mostly by Lippman himself, Trusted Media is now courting content clients for its video delivery technology, including cable MSOs wanting to drive high-speed Internet customers to their video programming lineups.

It landed its first deal with Cisco Systems Inc., which is using it for corporate communications, making videos available on its Web site.

Long-term, Lippman expects a greater business among networks and channels and Web portals. He noted ESPN.com's Motion service showed the concept can work.

"What that's done basically is tell the world that you can have a million ad views a day — a million high-priced ad views a day — if you change your Web site in this way," Lippman said.

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