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MEMORY LANE: A stream runs through it

Sun, 11/30/2008 - 7:20pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer, Englewood, Colo.

For all of the hullabaloo that audio and video content could be
sent over the Internet, streaming media seemed to disappoint.

In 1998, the Internet standards-setting organization known as the W3C endorsed a creation called Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language, or SMIL. The text-based format for marking up digital multimedia content allowed developers of streaming media content to rally around an open standard that effectively supplanted dozens of Stewart Schleyproprietary methods for preparing audio and video files to be flung across the Internet.

At the time, “streaming media” was barely born, and among those who sampled it, it was often maligned. Early streaming-video attempts were based on sequences of eight frames per second, versus the 30 frames specified in the NTSC television standard. The limitation produced halting, flickering progressions relegated to tiny PC screen windows. Detractors sniffed at the concept as “postage stamp” video.

On the receiving end, getting streaming media to play on a computer meant users had to go to the trouble of selecting and downloading – or purchasing on physical disk – special “player” software that would decode and reproduce streamed content.

It was considerable work for scant reward, and for all of the hullabaloo associated with the idea that audio and video content could be sent over the Internet – an August 2000 McKinsey report posed the question of whether streaming media might mean the end of broadcast television – streaming media generally seemed to disappoint.

But time, technology and perseverance would change that. The SMIL language was one ingredient in a formative ecosystem that quickly began to exhibit promise. Broadband access networks, of course, were enormous instigators, and so was the migration of media players into PCs and operating systems (and later Web sites, themselves) as tightly bound features. On the content side, dozens of start-ups sprang to life in an attempt to dance around the boundaries of the prevailing television business and court audiences over the open Internet. Encoding techniques improved as category patriarchs like Real Networks Inc. continued to tweak and prod the possibilities of the medium.

It’s instructive to note the interplay of content and technology that helped lift streaming media in the late 1990s. The familiar chicken-and-egg conundrum that confronted the sector was that nobody would watch without good content, and that nobody could distribute good content without enabling technology. To fill in the blanks, companies including Real Networks, Akamai, iBeam and a number of others amalgamated both delivery resources and content in an attempt to ignite streaming media.

Some of them are long gone. But as a collective, they helped to push the concept of streaming media from the stuff of hope and promise into the media mainstream. At the same time, they began to transform the Internet from a text medium to a multimedia vessel. According to Internet traffic specialist Ellacoya Networks, Google Inc.’s streaming video site YouTube now accounts for close to 10 percent of all Internet traffic, and Cisco Systems has projected a six-fold increase in Internet traffic between 2007 and 2012, triggered largely by online video.

On the content side, video has transcended the early experimental days of streaming media – a breeding ground for pornography, film trailers and the occasional news clip – to encompass prime time television programs and movies featuring marquee directors and actors. Audiences, in turn, have flocked to streaming media. “Watching video on the Internet is no longer a novelty,” researcher Nielsen Co. commented in a May 2008 report. “Nearly 119 million unique viewers viewed 7.5 billion video streams in May 2008.”

A grand compliment was paid to streaming media earlier this year when The CW Network yanked episodes of the TV drama “Gossip Girl” from its Web site for fear that too many people were watching it online, and that TV ratings were consequently eroding. But wait. The ultimate compliment actually may be the fact that the term itself seems to be fading. It’s no longer called “streaming media” in the consumer lexicon. It’s called “Hulu” or “YouTube” or “Friday Night Lights.”

History suggests that the corner has been turned on mainstream adoption when we stop talking about the underlying enabling networks that allow for communication to occur, and simply talk about the resulting task. We don’t use the switched telephone network. We simply “call” someone. We don’t scan the Internet to find out about a subject. We “Google” it. Similarly, “streaming media” is a fading dot.com-era term for what was then a new mechanism for watching video or listening to music. A few years from now, you won’t use the term at all. But you will use the medium a lot.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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