VisionThing: To the Victor Goes the Stream

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For years now, TV and computers have been swimming up different forks of the same stream, headed for the same destination from various directions. Television has struggled to become more interactive. The computer industry, on the other hand, has labored to engage, fascinate, and enthrall computer users.

Both are headed toward an enriched form of interactive media that offers people choice and control without giving up quality and timeliness. Until now, you couldn't have it all. But thanks to ever-burgeoning bandwidths brought to you by technologies like cable modems (thanks, television industry) and DSL (thanks, computer industry), it's becoming possible to shove massive amounts of video into households in real time.

Thanks to media-compression and -streaming technologies like Microsoft's Windows Media Technology and RealNetworks' RealMedia, the quality of Internet video keeps getting better. It's possible now to watch an entire channel's worth of programming live, with no waiting for files to download–albeit in a small window and with a few annoying skips and pauses. But even this low-fidelity experience has proven good enough to spark an explosion in Internet streaming. And the quality of audio-only streaming is so good that Internet radio could develop audiences larger than the wireless variety in short order.

Into this world Apple brings QuickTime 4.0, the edition of the venerable media standard that's able to stream media live over the Net. At first glance, the massive amount of QuickTime content already on the Net and that content's high quality would make it a fait accompli for QuickTime 4.0 to displace Windows Media and RealMedia and reign as the King of All Streaming Media. But Apple will find overtaking these two popular formats a challenge.

When it comes to video from the archives, QuickTime has the advantage. Roughly 50 percent of all video stored on the Internet is in QuickTime format. And QuickTime already serves as an intermediate step between the source material and other Internet streaming technologies. According to Apple, 90 percent of the content served up by RealVideo servers was previously in QuickTime format.

However, when it comes to broadcasting live video and audio, the advantage goes to RealNetworks and Microsoft. What counts here is the number of Web sites that have already based their Net broadcasting technology on those two companies' formats. Being so late to the market with robust streaming support, Apple has to swim hard and fast against a very strong current to catch up with RealNetworks and Microsoft. After all, setting up a streaming Web server is a difficult task, and the Web sites that have already invested significantly in one particular format are unlikely to get rid of it any time soon. From their standpoint, if the technology they're currently using isn't broken, why fix it?

Luckily for Apple, there are still opportunities here. Because the bandwidth to support even a moderately satisfactory streaming experience is still limited to businesses and the households lucky enough to have high-speed access, video streaming is still a relative rarity. The trick for Apple won't be to go after the pioneering sites that have already cast their lot with a particular standard.

What Apple can do is ride the big wave that follows the first brave adopters of new technologies. It must connect with the vast number of sites that would like to offer streaming but have steered clear of it because of cost, logistics, and a seeming lack of demand. To reach them, Apple must make serving live video inexpensive and easy. The Mac OS X Server-based QuickTime Streaming Server is a step in the right direction, but the company also needs to let other companies use Apple's software and hardware package to roll out and support those systems throughout the world. There are thousands of site owners out there who would jump at the chance to offer live video and audio streaming if it could be set up and made to work without a huge output of time or money.

It's true that Apple is late to offer streaming as a part of QuickTime, and that the two formats already on the market have made a lot of headway. But while the current is strong, this stream is also wide–and with a little aggressive marketing, QuickTime's superior technology could still win the race.

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