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MEMORY LANE - Getting Real

Thu, 09/30/2010 - 8:30pm
Stewart Schley, Media & Technology Writer, Denver, Colo.

You’ve got to believe Glaser will go down as the real deal

On Sept. 5, 1995, baseball’s Seattle Mariners beat the visiting New York Yankees 6-5, with Mariner right fielder Jay Buhner getting the key hit: a three-run homer in the fifth inning. The game was notable not just because it paired two of the American League’s top teams, but also because it marked the debut of a little-known technology.

The broadcast of the Tuesday evening game was the first to be distributed over the Internet using software developed by a Seattle company bent on proving out the Internet’s ability to accommodate more than typed messages and static text-and-graphics pages. Relatively few tuned in, but that night’s game nonetheless marked a turning point for the media industries.

By Stewart SchleyIn the mid-1990s, before anybody had heard of YouTube, before Hulu was streaming primetime TV shows, before Xbox 360s could bring ESPN3 to TV sets, and before the upstart success of Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” video service sent cable industry strategists scrambling for a competitive reply, there was, uniquely, RealNetworks.

Originally known as Progressive Networks, it was the first to develop and commercialize software that allowed websites to play audio and video content. The Mariners-Yankees broadcast was its public debut. Until then, remember, the Internet was almost entirely a medium of type and graphics. You didn’t listen to Web content, and you didn’t watch Web content. You read it. RealNetworks changed that. By devising ways to squeeze video frame sequences into ultra-small bitstreams that could fit within the cramped confines of a narrowband Internet, RealNetworks transformed the experience of going online into a far more interesting multimedia immersion.

True, the streams could be agonizingly unreliable. Complicated motions didn’t always translate well, and streams sometimes vanished inexplicably. Demonstrating his RealVideo technology to a Wall Street Journal reporter in 1998, RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser launched a music video featuring the performer Jewel because, he explained in a delightfully confessional admission, “She doesn’t move around too much.”

But despite its blemishes, there was something immediately appealing in what the RealAudio and RealVideo codecs hinted at: the Internet as a place for entertainment. Short clips and brief animations seemed to be best aligned with the limited bandwidth associated with the Internet, circa 1997, but it didn’t take much imagination to theorize that something bigger was in the offing. In the stuttering video feeds and tiny viewing windows associated with RealVideo, there could be detected the faint stirring-to-life of a technology that had “disruption” written all over it.

Others had experimented with video streaming, but Glaser, a famously impatient boss who had left a top job at Microsoft, was the first to give it scale. With an intent that often seemed to border on fury, Glaser goaded, coaxed, demanded and got from a small team of developers an end-to-end system for playing and receiving streaming video. The brilliant stroke was to give it away: The RealVideo codec was available to anyone with a PC, an Internet connection and the patience to download the application. By 1998, 18 million registered users had grabbed the Real player software, giving RealNetworks a large installed base for Internet video. The content outpouring that followed – a grab-bag of TV news clips, music videos, short films and more – gave quick credence to the idea that video on the Internet was a sustainable, scalable force.

Today, of course, that notion has been proved beyond reproach: Nearly 25 million people, according to researcher comScore, watch full-length TV shows and clips from Hulu, and more than half of the 15 million subscribers to Netflix routinely fire up movies and TV shows from Internet-connected computers, Blu-ray players and video game consoles. YouTube alone pumps out more than 2 billion videos a day.

In recent years, RealNetworks has been so convincingly eclipsed by other streaming platforms, notably Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Windows Media family, that it almost seems an afterthought in the modern ecosystem. But from the development of the first scaled streaming video codecs to the introduction of adaptive bit rate streaming to the popularization of Internet video at large, many of the building blocks for today’s video revolution can be traced directly to Glaser and RealNetworks. Not everyone loved Glaser’s approach to business, but his legacy is undeniable.

As media maven Mark Cuban wrote on the website Streamingmedia.com after Glaser resigned as CEO in January, “Rob is and was at the heart of the content distribution business.” In the history of the television business, you’ve got to believe, he’ll go down as the real deal.

E-Mail: stewart@stewartschley.com

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