The three-screen promise

One result of the interplay of evolving technology and evolving consumer behavior is redefinition of the Web. In its early years, consumers thought of the Web in a limited way — Internet accessed via PC. Today, the Web has literally escaped the bounds of the PC screen and has reasserted itself on the screens of mobile phones, mobile tablets, television sets and game consoles, as well as on the speakers of Internet radio.

At the same time, the wide availability of high-bandwidth connectivity has opened the doors for what was once considered an unthinkable volume of content, including high-quality streaming media, to viewers beyond the boundaries of a living room.

Both the common wisdom and the numbers indicate the insatiability of the viewing audience's appetite for media anytime anywhere. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, this year 85 percent of Americans report owning cell phones, 52 percent own laptop computers, 42 percent own game consoles, and 4 percent own tablet computers.

Reaching new audiences

These consumption trends represent tremendous opportunities for broadcasters, content producers and other media enterprises to reach new audiences. However, technical challenges abound.

To understand why, you only have to look at all the variables in play. There are at least five different popular media platforms: Flash, Silverlight, HTML5, Apple iOS and 3GPP, while the number of transport protocols in common use is higher still: RTMP, RTSP/RTP, MPEG-TS and multiple HTTP methods, not to mention various adaptive bit-rate approaches. (See Table 1.)

Add to that the multiplicity of devices, each with its distinctive idiosyncrasies and capabilities — including screen size, resolution, decoding abilities, and encoding format and profile support. Compounding the issue further are the restrictions imposed by individual networks, which may include router and firewall filtering or protocol blocking. Then add bandwidth and other limitations imposed by different delivery methods — DSL, cable modem, WiFi, 3G and 4G.

Success requires strategic approach

Success requires a strategic approach that takes into account the complexities of both the technology and the marketplace. The first and most obvious consideration is where the content is going to be viewed — PC, mobile, game console or OTT. A second consideration is what content will be viewed. Is the programming going to be streamed live — a major sporting event, for example? Or, like a classic movie, will it have the same appeal if it's delivered on-demand?

A third issue is identifying the best infrastructure to support delivery. This is where the choice of technology first comes to bear.

Optimizing the revenue model

Among monetizing options available to broadcasters are in-stream or in-player advertising, subscription and pay-per-view. Broadcasters also need to make their brand or website “sticky” to keep viewers coming back. In the mobile domain in particular, broadcasters have an opportunity to enhance revenue streams with apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry and other devices.

One traditional solution is to implement separate media server infrastructures, each targeted at delivery to specific screens or media platforms. This so-called “segregated workflow streaming” may be many things, but it's not cost-effective. (See Figure 1.) In fact, that approach requires buying, implementing and maintaining multiple separate server types — a Flash media server for Flash, Microsoft IIS for Silverlight, QuickTime streaming server for 3GPP mobile delivery, and so on.

Besides up-front and operating expense, a further problem is inflexibility, which makes planning for the future a nightmare. Guess wrong now, and you may have to replace everything much sooner than necessary. And even if you guess right, an inflexible system will fail to keep pace with inevitable, incremental improvements in technology.

Unified media infrastructure

A better approach is a unified media infrastructure supporting what is also known as “unified workflow streaming.” (See Figure 2.) The model is based on a unified media server, a single server software type that enables streaming from a common set of on-demand or live asset encodes simultaneously to any supported player device over any protocol.

A unified media server eliminates the need for client-specific encoders and, because it can be deployed or redeployed on commodity server hardware, it can take quick advantage of evolving performance increases. Unified media server software also makes it possible to achieve in excess of 10Gb/s per-server streaming performance using off-the-shelf hardware.

Providing a real-world example is RTÉ. The Irish public service broadcaster provides free-to-air television, radio and online services. The network's “NewsNow” program feeds rely on unified media servers to stream news and current events 24 hours a day to any screen anytime, supporting Flash, iPhone and Android devices. RTÉ implemented the unified server solution after recognizing that the traditional, segregated model would require twice the number of servers along with the commensurate multiplication of staff and costs.

Good for business, good for consumers

For consumers, the availability of Web-based media on any screen at any time is good. For broadcasters and other content providers, the Web's evolution presents both new opportunities for business expansion and new challenges. When considering a business's move into these new delivery opportunities, it is important to carefully consider both initial and ongoing infrastructure and staff costs.

Alex Dobrushin is chief marketing officer at Wowza Media Systems.