The Streaming Media Industry Needs A “Real” Awards Program For Vendors, Based On Actual Methodology

There are a lot of award programs in the streaming media industry and while many don’t want to admit it, most of them are a joke. Awards are given out to vendors with no real methodology behind them and it’s all based on marketing dollars spent, connections with editorial departments, or stuffing ballots. At the NAB Show in Vegas, nearly a dozen media organizations gave out awards to vendors and many of them spent no time looking at the product, getting hands-on with it, and picked vendors based on what was said in a press release. I’ve seen products win awards that were still in beta, had no referenceable customers, could not scale or simply didn’t do what they claimed. (Note, the NAB Show’s do not give out any awards of their own tied to the streaming industry, news/media companies simply use the NAB Show name in their own awards program)

Of course, everyone likes to win awards, but I think they should be based on a ranking system of some kind, with some real methodology behind them. Without that, it’s hard for vendors who don’t spend a lot on marketing to win awards and many vendors get passed over. I’m also seeing vendors put a good percentage of their marketing budget towards winning awards, with the idea that it somehow helps them win new business. And yet from what I can tell, winning awards doesn’t drive new revenue for vendors at all. I have yet to talk to a customer who said they picked one vendor over another, because it won an award in the market. They are much more likely to take a recommendation from a current customer, or an expert in the field, over anything else.

If an awards program was backed by a person or an organization that was well-respected in the industry and was based on real methodology of some kind, I do think it would help vendors get new business and help them stand out. But to date, I haven’t seen an awards program of that kind, outside of very specific technical programs by a standards body like SMPTE and others, that are tied to more traditional pay TV products. And while all vendors operate in a competitive environment, I also think peers would be willing to help vote on companies they respect, products they think have merit and live events that provide a good user experience.

With all this in mind, the next logical question is, what would it take to provide a respected awards program in the market for the streaming media industry? For vendors to be highlighted properly and companies to know how they were being compared to their peers. What would you want to see included in such a program? I’m interested to hear your feedback, either in the comments section below or you can drop me an email at any time.

Better Video Compression Can’t Fix The OTT Infrastructure Problem, Hardware Might

Last month I write a blog post detailing how the current infrastructure strategy to support OTT services isn’t economically sustainable. I got a lot of replies from people with their thoughts on the topic and some suggested that the solution to the platform performance problem will be fixed with better video compression. While it’s a great debate to have, with lots of opinions on the subject, personally I don’t think better gains in compression are the answer.

While a breakthrough in compression technology would allow the current streaming infrastructure to deliver more video, the unfortunate reality is that significant resources have already been invested in, to optimize video compression, and the rate of improvement is far below the video growth rate. Depending on who’s numbers you look at, video streaming traffic is currently growing at a CAGR of about 35%. On the other hand, video compression has improved by about 7% CAGR over the past 20 years (halving the video bitrate every 10 years). Unless video compression has a major breakthrough of 15:1 improvement or more, in compression efficiency, better compression alone cannot solve the internet video bottleneck.

Compression is really about making the video itself smaller and therefore more efficient to deliver and not about the performance of the underlying streaming delivery platform. The benefits of any potential breakthroughs in video compression technology will likely benefit all streaming video delivery platforms equally and, as such, are a separate topic from the requirement to increase the performance of the streaming video platforms themselves.

Similarly, approaches to improve performance by moving popular content to edge devices closer to the customer, such as at cell phone towers and cable head end locations, have been suggested as ways to further improve throughput and capacity. These techniques should all be pursued regardless of what underlying technologies are used to actually stream the video but, unfortunately, these techniques, used separately or even together, offer only incremental benefits to performance. Given the massive scale of the projected demand for streaming video, we need an order of magnitude of improvement in today’s performance in order to address the capacity gap.

To increase the performance of the streaming video infrastructure, there are only two main areas of focus – the software and the hardware. While great strides have been made over the last decade by many in optimizing the streaming video software layers, even the most capable developers are facing diminishing returns on their efforts as additional software optimizations yield progressively fewer performance increases. Continued software optimization efforts will continue to eke out incremental performance gains but are not likely to be a significant factor in addressing the overwhelming capacity gap faced in the industry. By process of elimination, this leaves the hopes pinned firmly on the hardware side of the equation.

Unfortunately, the latest research shows that the performance curve for increases in CPU performance over time has flattened out. Despite increases in the number of transistors per chip, a number that is now approaching 20 billion on the largest CPUs, and the shrinking of the transistors themselves, to sub-10nm in the latest chips, we have reached diminishing returns. The projected increases in annual CPU performance are so far below the 35% annual growth rate in streaming video traffic demand that I think we can eliminate improved CPU performance as a possible solution for the capacity gap problem.

If the software and CPU platform, which has worked so well since the inception of the streaming video industry, cannot meet the future needs of the market, what can? Since the dawn of computing, the solution to insufficient software and CPU performance has been to offload the workload to a specialized piece of hardware. Examples of specialized hardware being utilized to enable higher performance include RAID cards in storage, TCP/IP offload engines in networking, and the ubiquitous GPUs which have revolutionized the world of computer graphics. Thanks to GPU’s, a consumer today can watch 4K video streams on their selection of viewing devices, including televisions, computers, and mobile platforms. Given this track record of success, its seems clear that the innovation that is required is a piece of specialized hardware that can offload the heavy lifting of streaming video from the CPU and software. This technology exists and is now making its way to market thanks to the recent advances in Field Programmable Gate Array or FPGA technology.

Traditionally, FPGA technologies have not been part of the data center infrastructure, but this has begun to change in recent years. In fact, the current edition of the magazine ACMQueue, a publication of the Association of Computing Machinery, features “FPGAs In Data Centers” as its feature article. Early work on implementing FPGA’s in the datacenter was pioneered by Microsoft who, with an effort called Project Catapult, proved that massive increases in the performance of web queries (for the Bing search engine) could be obtained by offloading the workload from the CPU’s and software to FPGA’s. This effort was so successful that Microsoft now deploys FPGAs as a part of their standard cloud server architecture. In order to address the needs of the streaming video industry, an ideal solution would be to offload video streaming to a specialized FPGA, which isn’t a new idea, but something that’s just now being seriously talked about. This would essentially require the implementation of the functionality of an entire streaming video server onto a single chip but, which is both possible and highly advantageous to do so.

Some of those in the industry who know way more than me when it comes to FPGA technologies have suggested new offerings in the market by companies like Hellastorm and others, have the potential to change the way video is distributed. Their solution in particular takes the core functionality of an entire streaming video server and implemented it on a chip the company calls the “Stream Processing Unit”, which eliminates software layers from the data path. The result is that they can offload the heavy lifting of the streaming video workload, thereby freeing up valuable CPU resources to improve the performance of other tasks, dramatically increasing streaming video performance.

Additionally, if the use case requires only streaming video functionality, the CPU, OS, RAM, and much of the other circuitry normally required to stream video can be eliminated entirely, thereby saving significant amounts of electricity. Going forward, the streaming video functionality can follow the hardware performance curve and benefit from improvements to FPGA technologies just as the prior generation of streaming video servers benefited from improvements in CPU technologies. The company claims that their Stream Processing Unit technology will keep pace with advances in networking speeds such that the streaming video being delivered from the platform will fully saturate the networking connection, be it 10Gbs, 100Gbs, and even 400Gbs in the future.

The dual benefits of greater capacity delivered with dramatically less power consumption make video stream offload attractive even before one considers the substantial benefits that can be obtained by freeing up CPU resources to provide other network services. Hardware offload of streaming video, with its ability to rapidly scale in performance over the next few years, appears to be the best way to address the looming capacity gap. Some don’t want to invest in hardware because they feel it has too high of a CAPEX requirement, but based on what we have seen in the market, and from speaking with those who are tasked with dealing with the massive influx of video traffic on the networks, video compression alone isn’t going to solve the capacity gap problem. I am interested to hear what others think can be done to solve the problem in the market, feel free to leave your comments below.

Review: AT&T’s WatchTV Live Streaming Offering Works Well, But Primarily A Way To Drive Wireless Subscriptions

I recently got hands-on with AT&T’s new WatchTV live streaming service and overall, it works well. It’s simple to use, the quality of the video was good on all the devices I tested and the interface is easy to navigate. It’s basically a stripped down version of AT&T’s more expensive DirecTV Now live streaming service, with no live sports, no DVR, a limited selection of 31 channels and only one concurrent stream allowed at a time. WatchTV costs just $15 a month, or comes free with AT&T’s Wireless “Unlimited & More” or “Unlimited & More Premium” plans. Although WatchTV doesn’t carry 24-hour sports channels, it does carry channels (like TNT) that occasionally carry some sports. AT&T said that when live sports air on some of those stations, they will not blackout the sports content.

AT&T says that WatchTV was created as a no-frills, “skinnier” streaming option for customers who just want the basics, but it’s really a way for AT&T to try to drive more consumers to sign up for their wireless plans, giving them a upsell over the competition. I don’t expect many consumers to sign up for the WatchTV service as a stand-alone offering, due to the limitation of the content being offered and AT&T said they have no plans for additional content options or “bolt-ons” for WatchTV. This makes sense since customers wanting additional functionality and more content options can simply sign up for DirecTV Now, at $40 a month.

If you’re already an AT&T Wireless subscriber with one of the plans WatchTV comes with, you’re getting a limited amount of free, live content, at no additional cost. And if you don’t watch live sports and only watch content from stations like TBS, TNT, A&E, AMC, Food Network, BBC, CNN, IFC, TLC, History, HGTV, Discovery and a few others, then you are getting a great deal at only $15 a month.

Announcing The Two-Day Streaming Summit at NAB Show New York: Call For Speakers Now Open

Following the successful launch of my new Streaming Summit event at the April NAB Show in Las Vegas, I am excited to announce we are expanding the Streaming Summit (www.nabstreamingsumit.com) to two full days, at the NAB Show New York, taking place October 17-18th. This is the start of a new focus at the show, with dedicated tracks on how to package, monetize and distribute online video. A show for the streaming media industry that will cover the entire streaming stack and all the technologies and platforms that power today’s streaming services.

The Summit will be two full days with over 75 speakers covering monetization and technical topics, along with networking opportunities. The format will consist of fireside chats, technical best practices presentations, round-table panels and a demo track to showcase some of the newest technologies and opportunities in the market. From technical topics like CMAF, AV1, blockchain, SRT, transcoding and SSAI to business topics like direct to consumer (D2C), content bundling, OTT monetization and video advertising models, the Streaming Summit will give attendees a holistic view of the entire online video ecosystem.

The call for speakers is now open and you can find all the details on submitting on the website. Some of the topics that will be covered include:

  • The Future of OTT and The Bundling of Content
  • Best Practices for Deploying Server Side Ad Insertion
  • HEVC, AV1 and The Future of Video Codecs
  • How to Build A Robust and Nimble Video Stack
  • Monetizing Video Content Direct-to-Consumer
  • WebRTC and Low Latency Live Streaming Deployments
  • Video Advertising: What’s Working and What Needs to Be Fixed
  • Best Practices for Streaming Live to Millions
  • SRT: Optimizing Streaming Performance Across the Internet
  • Blockchain Based Video Platforms
  • CMAF: Reducing Packaging, Storage and Delivery Costs
  • QoE: Measuring Latency, Buffering and The User Experience
  • The Challenge in Monetizing Live OTT Services
  • Best Practices for Streaming Live on Social Platforms

This the start of a new, dedicated focus at the NAB Show New York and an opportunity for individuals and companies to get involved. If you want to be involved, have ideas, or give me feedback on topics you want to see covered, I want to hear from you! My cell number is 917-523-4562 and you can call it anytime. My goal is to help provide the industry with a place we can all come together to highlight, discuss and debate what is taking place in the streaming media industry. I am looking for moderators, pitches, ideas and we are also offering vendors the opportunity to get involved via extremely affordable sponsorships. Even ticket prices to attend the event are under $700 for both days and I am personally giving out a discount code to help showcase all the new content coming to the NAB Show New York.

With about 75 speaking spots, I won’t be able to fulfill everyone’s request to be involved. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get a speaking submission in quickly. Once spots are gone I can’t open up new ones or add more slots to the program. So please visit the speaking submission page or call me (917-523-4562) at any time.

In addition, in conjunction with the NAB Show New York, I will also be launching a new summit, taking place on October 15th, that will focus on content distribution at the edge. A focused one-day event that will explore all that is taking place with CDN, WAF, DDOS, DNS and other services that are disrupting the traditional cloud platforms. The show will highlight how companies continue to search for improvement of the end-user experience with new decentralized services that requires getting closer to the eyeballs. I’ll have more details on that shortly, but feel free to reach out to me in the meantime if you’d like more details.

Instagram TV Launch Is A Mess With No Strategy and Poor Content

Last week Instagram launched Instagram TV (IGTV), describing it as a “long form video app” that lets anyone upload videos up to 10 minutes in length, or up to 60 minutes if they are a verified account. The whole point of IGTV is to have longer-form content and yet, most of the content on IGTV so far, is very short. Scrolling through the top 142 most recommended videos “for me”, shows 70% of them are under 3 minutes in length and many are less than 60 seconds in length. But even worse is the content. There are lots of videos of people fighting in the street, someone taking a shower, a guy dressed as a woman dancing, a brawl inside Target, and a video of someone pulling out a real gun and shooting someone in the back. Is this the kind of content IGTV really wants to highlight?

These videos sit alongside content from Oprah, Selena Gomez and other stars and yet even their videos are super short. Oprah’s video is just over a minute long with other celebrities’ videos being well under a minute long. With so much content being under a minute in length one has to ask, what’s the point of IGTV when the regular Instagram app already allows videos of up to 60 seconds? It doesn’t appear Instagram has a real strategy with IGTV and I can’t find any content partners they worked with to provide high-quality, long-form content at launch.

From a user experience standpoint, I haven’t seen any way to customize the content and whatever algorithm Instagram is using to recommend videos, doesn’t work. The recommendations they are serving up to me have no resemblance to the genre of content I would watch. There are also a lot of videos on IGTV in Spanish, Russian, Arabic etc. yet I can’t find any place to filter out content based on the language a user speaks.

Content is king, but apparently not on IGTV where short-form, crappy content is the norm.