Peering Into the Future of Streaming Media

Rapid-fire developments in streaming media have come so fast in the past 5 years that those who follow the nascent industry find themselves in a constant time warp. Yet, a vision for the future is finally developing and it's starting to look like – as Yogi Berra put it – "deja vu all over again."

In a nutshell, the grand plan for new media is essentially a turbo-charged version of old media. As the purveyors of streaming media discuss a "consolidation of the world's media delivery infrastructure," phrases like "pay-per-view," "conditional access" and "content peering" are beginning to creep into the industry lingo.

The end game for streaming media is a complex, two-way content delivery system where anyone anywhere on the planet can pay to access any media at any hour of the day or night.

Note the operative word here is "Pay" with a capital "P." The business model is just like today's cable and direct-to-home satellite systems – except with global reach and true interactivity.


However, before streaming media is ready for primetime it must become more reliable. RealNetworks, the industry leader, made a significant move in that direction recently with the introduction of a new foundational architecture for digital media delivery. They call it RealSystem iQ and promise it will "dramatically increase the reliability" of Internet broadcasts.

"RealSystem iQ is another big step forward toward our goal of turning the Internet into the next great mass medium," said Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks.

RealSystem iQ operates at several levels to eliminate congestion in the middle of the network. Previous technologies relied on origin servers to distribute media streams hierarchically to edge servers and then to end users. The new system, using what RealNetworks calls "Neuralcast" technology, changes this one-way approach of origin-to-edge distribution.

By creating honeycombs of distributed interconnected servers, Real's new architecture enables all servers to broadcast into the network, receive content from any other server and deliver media to end users. Think of Neuralcast as a giant router that can efficiently move media from one server to many via standard network protocols.


For Internet broadcasters, RealSystem iQ offers some significant benefits. Media content can be injected at any point; media flows intelligently between servers in both directions; sound and video quality are improved; and operating costs to service providers are lowered. The goal is a more reliable network due to iQ's forward error-correcting technology and its ability to send redundant media streams over different parallel networks components.

RealSystem iQ is the first Internet media system to support both satellite and terrestrial delivery within one distributed network architecture. Thus, it can cover vast geographic areas and scale to millions of users.

It can also dynamically distribute stream capacity at times of heavy traffic and quickly adjust to spikes in usage, thus addressing a difficult challenge to today's network operators.

The new Real technology also makes a stab at bringing together all the disparate media types now available. It consolidates 45 media delivery infrastructures including Apple's QuickTime, Flash 4 and streaming MP3. Missing from the list, unfortunately, is Microsoft's Windows Media format. Old rivalries die hard.

A large roster of companies immediately signed on to RealSystem iQ. They include America Online, Intel, Adobe Systems, Avid Technology, HewlettPackard, IBM, Inktomi, Lucent, Macromedia and Sun Microsystems.


Part of understanding the significance of Real's new architecture is to see the direction it seeks to take streaming media. There are extensions for authentication, advertising and content protection. This is all part of a plan, says the company, to extend digital media delivery to all media networks and consumer devices beyond the PC. "As future applications like video-on-demand, gaming networks and broadcasting to wireless devices become commonplace, RealSystem iQ will be there to deliver," says the RealNetworks press kit.

Of course, there's much work ahead before a truly global streaming media delivery system is established. This includes creation of a global billing system between network vendors, improved conditional access and broader deployment of broadband connections to the home.

For skeptics that say it can't be done, remember this is an industry that didn't exist only 5 years ago. There's an energy and vision in the streaming media camp that traditional broadcasters can only dream of. And now the new media proponents have added an additional component to the mix: a clear vision of the future and a plan for how to get there.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.