Vendors, Content Firms Perchance May Stream

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While cable players continue to mull over their streaming media agendas, equipment and content vendors in that arena are aggressively pushing forward their ideas.

They were out in full force for last month's Streaming Media West show in San Jose, Calif. And why shouldn't they be? The latest Nielsen/NetRatings figure indicate that 35 million Web users had tapped into streamed content by the end of November, up 65 percent from a year ago.

Aerocast.com Inc. is one company that tried to make a big splash at the show; it's also looking to grab the attention of cable operators.

The start-up streaming-media company recently scored a $15 million investment from Motorola Inc. and Liberty Satellite LLC, a joint venture owned by Liberty Media Corp. and Liberty Satellite & Technology.

In order for broadband-based streaming to take off, certain criteria must be met, said Aerocast chief operating officer Dario Santana, a former Motorola Broadband Communications Sector and General Instrument Corp. executive. They include filling the screen with high-quality video, providing an affordable service to consumers and operators and including enough security to pacify content gatekeepers.

Aerocast's role is to build a bridge between content and service providers. That's a crucial role, because when viewed over the Internet, most current streaming-media technology typically gives Web surfers an unpredictable and sometimes choppy and postage-stamp-sized experience, Santana said. That's particularly true for those with a narrowband connection.

As a result, most streaming-media content is relegated to short, promotional videos rather than full-length television shows or movies.

"If you were to stream through the Internet, you'd undergo hops and handoffs for packets, while some packets could be dropped altogether," he added. Instead, users "want to get a good, solid stream."

Aerocast, which has emerged from stealth mode following a year of development, believes its technology can provide that link to cable operators by offering a system that can stream video at throughputs between 300 to 1500 kilobits per second. Its technology consists of an Aerocast Video Exchange (AVX) box that sits in the cable headend and a small software program called Rabbit that resides in home computers and relays Aerocast-enabled content to viewing applications such as Microsoft Corp.'s "Windows Media Player," Apple Computer Corp.'s "QuickTime" or RealNetworks Inc.'s "RealPlayer."

Motorola, meanwhile, handles encryption and conditional access.

One AVX could handle 5,000 to 10,000 subscribers, though Aerocast's plans call for even denser equipment, marketing vice president Mike Sawyer said.

Aerocast also hopes to resolve pricing concerns by starting its economic model at $200 per megabit per second for peak pricing, Santana added.

The company has been conducting technical trials involving about 25 homes each with undisclosed operators since mid-August.

Santana said Aerocast hopes to reach the first stage of commercial rollouts by early second quarter in 2001.

It's strictly up to each individual cable operator to determine how they'll make money using Aerocast's technology, Santana said. An MSO could use the advanced streaming platform to lure or retain high-speed customers, or it could charge a separate fee for Aerocast-enabled content, he said.

Aerocast, meanwhile, will make most of its money from deals with content providers such as Starz Encore Group, Discovery Communications Inc., USA Networks Inc. and OasisTV.com.

A content provider like OasisTV.com, which offers "body/mind/spirit" programming, was motivated to seek an Aerocast agreement because it has had difficulty securing traditional cable carriage deals, Santana said. An OasisTV.com spokeswoman said the company has yet to finalize any carriage deals with cable operators.

"This is their way to use the Internet to reach their audience," Santana said.

MICROSOFT'S BULLISH

While Aerocast vied for attention, Microsoft Corp. caused a stir of its own, as CEO Steve Ballmer presented his company's latest streaming-media strategy and line of products.

Ballmer unveiled "Windows Media Audio and Video 8," an enhanced engine for streaming and downloading video and audio.

Microsoft's next operating system, code-named "Whistler," will house the Windows Media Player 8 application. Microsoft's new player is expected to up the competitive ante with streaming platform leader RealNetworks.

RealNetworks, citing Niel-sen/NetRatings data, said its format was used in 27.7 million home users by the end of November.

By comparison, Microsoft's platform reaches roughly 13.2 million homes.

The video cousin of Microsoft's new streaming software uses compression technology designed to cross the 500 kilobits per second threshold for crisp, "near-DVD" quality video.

On the audio side, Microsoft has its sights set on near-CD quality sound at 48 kbps, which would enable file sizes almost one-third the size of the popular MP3 format. Microsoft also introduced a version of Windows Media Player designed for Pocket PCs, which allows those users to stream video and audio files to their handheld devices.

It appears other companies are circling the wagons or have at least made note of Microsoft's most recent streaming-media overtures.

A group led by Apple, Cisco Systems Inc., Kasenna Inc., Philips Consumer Electronics Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. launched the Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA). Its goal: to accelerate the market adoption of open standards for streaming "rich media" over Internet protocol.

That means the creation of a standards based, "player neutral" streaming-media format. The fist ISMA specification will center on streaming audio and video using the MPEG-4 (Moving Pictures Expert Group) compression standard, the organization said.

As of today, neither Microsoft or RealNetworks are on ISMA's list of supporters.

CONTENT GEARS UP
Cable programmer TechTV bolstered its streaming-media strategy by deploying Telestream's "FlipFactory" software.

Telestream's product is intended to help TechTV automate the repurposing of its video programming for the programmer's Web site. TechTV also announced it had revamped the site, replete with multimedia features such as video-on-demand for show clips and areas that provide content related to programs such as "Cyber Crime" and "Call For Help."

Meanwhile, Into Networks Inc, a software-on-demand provider, launched IntoMedia FullBand, a "bandwidth-savvy" technology that monitors network connections and makes adjustments to ensure an optimal bit rate.

Once executed, the company's new system essentially identifies a user's network connection, analyzes the optimal delivery options and buffers portions of the software title into the user's cache.

SEARCH ME A VIDEO
Now that streaming-media content is becoming more pervasive, how in the world can a typical user actually locate a single file?

Enter Singingfish.com, a company recently acquired by Thomson Multimedia to fortify its Digital Media Solutions business unit.

Singingfish.com's technology is designed to assist search engines and Web portals in locating audio and video streams, as well as MP3 files that run over applications such as RealPlayer, Windows Media and QuickTime.

SingingFish.com also introduced its first European customer: Inside Internet AG, a Switzerland-based Internet search engine. Late last week, the company also crafted a partnership with InfoSpace, which plans to incorporate Singingfish.com's technology sometime next year.

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