Streaming In The Real World

Each of the three dominant streaming media platforms is always scrambling for bragging rights, which is as it should be. Marketing and brand building is part of business, and dominance (or the perception of dominance) in a given area is worth touting. So Company X claims that its player is on more desktops, while Company Y points out that movie studios prefer its format, and Company Z says it's just better... period. But in a production environment, these claims ultimately don't matter.

What matters is identifying a workflow and system that gets the job done. Each broadcaster, business, and organization functions with a unique set of resources and limitations. Each has its own reasons for generating streaming media. Those charged with getting the job done must choose what works best for them. One size does not fit all, and because of that, we'll continue to enjoy competing streaming platforms for some time to come.

The experiences of a couple of readers illustrate this situation. One is a television production professional and high school teacher who has become the streaming go-to guy for his school system and many educators throughout Florida. Another is a creative manager with a background in design and cinematography who produces rich media for a major consulting firm. Each found a different route to get the job done.

Daniel Sell teaches television production at Miami Sunset Senior High School, where he was charged with streaming the graduation exercises a couple of years ago. A graduating class of more than 1,000 meant that not everyone who wanted to attend could cram into the chosen auditorium. Streaming the event would also benefit out-of-town family and friends.

The school purchased an Apple Power Mac G4 Server, and initial tests over a wide area network went well. But, as Sell put it, "it turned out to be a disaster during the graduation." The routers linking the stream to the Internet were not state-of-the-art and a latency problem developed. "There was so much delay, the router just dropped the video," said Sell. "A few people got the stream, but not many."

He had a second opportunity to stream an event when a statewide educational conference was held in Miami. The goal was to make a live stream available to a PC server that would distribute the signal to educational honchos in Tallahassee. Sell, who stressed that he is a TV guy, not a computer geek, installed Windows Media Server on an NT machine with a Pinnacle video capture card. He ran the Tallahassee server remotely, using PC Anywhere.

The arrangement worked so well that the Miami-Dade County Public Schools gave him $50,000 for dedicated streaming hardware. "We bought two high-end encoders and a high-end server strictly dedicated to Windows Media," said Sell. "Our goal was to eventually do all three platforms." Sell, now a veteran of this technology, has definite streaming preferences. He places the highest value on quick and easy server administration. "Side by side, Real just blows them away," he said. "It's so easy to set up." He also felt that the format's technical documentation is also superior.

Sell said Windows Media gets high marks for reliability, but the documentation is less thorough. Apple's QuickTime, which, according to him, has the poorest server documentation, has given him the most headaches. He hopes that will improve with the upcoming release of QuickTime Broadcaster, which has full support for MPEG-4.

A Nod To QuickTime

Nick Iacona, digital media design manager for KMPG Consulting's Internet Marketing Group, works with all three streaming platforms and doesn't have to worry about server administration. The intended audience, content and viewer interface all influence which platform is chosen for a particular job. When streaming video to corporate executives in an office PC environment, Real or Windows formats may be selected. But Iacona considers these formats "a final destination. The end user gets it, and it's consumed."

Prior to delivery, he chooses to develop using Macintosh computers and QuickTime. Iacona called QuickTime "a whole container, a multimedia universe. It's a hub, and there are a lot of spokes you can go through to move the media out."

He also said that the look and feel of the QuickTime player is easily customized and integrated with other Web technologies such as Macromedia's Flash. This feature is important when creating an image and relationship with the end user.

"We like to use video on the Web to help tell our story and personalize it," said Iacona. He's also looking forward to the quality enhancements of MPEG-4 and its universality. "That could really mitigate a lot of the Ôflavor' issues for people."

In the meantime, rich media developers have three streaming choices. Choose the one (or ones) that work best for you.