Google Lacks A Strategy To Support Live Video On Android Devices

For content owners that want to get their live event-based streaming content on mobile phones and tablets, many are quickly finding out that getting it to Android devices is extremely challenging. Unlike Apple’s iOS platform, Google has yet to provide an easy way to get live video to Android devices and to date, hasn’t detailed any kind of strategy of how they plan to fix it. Many content owners I have spoken with, as well as those who help these content owners encode and distribute their video are now questioning why they should even continue to go through all the trouble of trying to support Android based devices at all.

While media companies can always build an app for their event series, most do one-off events and are faced with streaming to the mobile web and reaching their audience using browsers on Android and iOS devices. When Android phones became popular, live video was supported in the mobile browser thanks to Flash. Digital video professionals with live content to distribute were able to keep doing what they were doing on the desktop and Flash made it easier than it is now. That’s not to say that Flash was perfect as in many cases their desktop players were heavy, containing ad overlays and metadata interaction that had a major impact on the playback quality. To get better quality video playback, some people turned to RTSP delivery, which Android touted as its native live video format until Android 2.3.4 came out, when that feature no longer worked.

The most effective way to get live video to Android browsers was to make a stripped-down Flash player that didn’t demand much from the phones. Video was decoded in the software but it would drain batteries quickly. It was imperfect but it functioned well enough to play video. With the introduction of Android 3.0 it looked like HLS support was going to be built-in for all future devices, and that has held true, sort of. HLS support doesn’t match the specification, and buffering is common. Industry-leading HLS implementations like those from Cisco and Akamai will not load on Android devices, so for the most part, content owners went back to Flash. But now Flash isn’t available to new Android phones.

Right now, content owners are left in an awkward state if they want to deliver live video to Android browsers. If Flash is present, you can deliver a basic Flash video player. If it is not, you can try to deliver HLS but the HLS manifests must either be hand-coded or created using Android-specific tools. If the HLS video can play without buffering you’ll find that there is no way to specify the aspect ratio, so in portrait mode it looks broken. The aspect ratio problem seems to have been fixed in Android 4.1 but often, if you enter video playback in landscape mode and leave in portrait it will crash. You can allow the HLS video to open and play in a separate application, but you lose the ability to communicate with the page, and exiting the video dumps the user back on their home screen.

In comparison to iOS devices, content owners can still send the same live video to iOS devices that they could in 2009, and it will play smoothly with little buffering. Live video support for browser-based streaming within Android tablets and phones is a significant challenge with little help available from Google, and with Android still talking about removing H.264 video support, many content owners are wondering why they should even try to support Android any longer? What’s clear is that Google doesn’t have a strategy to fix the problem and many content owners and video ecosystem vendors are frustrated. Content owners want to get their live video on as many devices and platforms as possible and right now, getting it to Android devices is very difficult and costly. Unless Google steps in to solve the problem, don’t expect content owners to continue to try to support Android devices for live video streaming.

Content owners that want to give their feedback to Google about this, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Note: I emailed a representative of the Android team asking if they were willing to talk about this subject but didn’t hear back. If Google would like to respond to this issue, I’ll be happy to post their response or hear any plans they may have to address the problem.

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The Media Loves To Hype Live Events: Red Bull Stratos Webcast Not A Record

On Sunday, YouTube broadcast the live jump by Felix Baumgartner for the Red Bull Stratos event. Soon afterwards, multiple media outlets were quick to call it the largest webcast ever and said it broke records, simply because YouTube’s player has a counter on it showing how many users were watching the stream. What they didn’t mention was that at peak, all videos on YouTube was down for many users, the live stream was encoded at a low bitrate and YouTube didn’t even broadcast the video on their network, but relied on third-party CDN Akamai instead. Seems nothing has changed from years ago when I wrote a similar posts asking, “Does Anyone Care About The Business Of Live Events, Or Just The Traffic?

[Updated 9:36pm: YouTube has just posted to their blog that “more than 8 million concurrent livestreams” of the event took place, but their numbers don’t match the ones that we have so far seen from Akamai. And they didn’t say “unique” streams. If they are going to put out vague numbers, they should at least put out the methodology on how they count streams as many times I could load the player, but not the video. So are they counting player loads or streams starting? Also, they say it was the “most concurrent views ever on YouTube”, but didn’t say “delivered by” YouTube. And unlike the media, no where did they imply it was the largest video event ever on the web, so I will give them credit for that.]

While the YouTube player showed a counter that went up and down during the event, it’s not a true indication of exactly how many simultaneous users were watching the stream. As an example, I watched the stream on three devices, all at the same time, but I am only one user. Is Google counting me as one unique user, or three unique users? Am I counted as one simultaneous stream, or three simultaneous streams? None of the numbers you see in the player are ever exact and many times, they are way off. Content owners who do live events across multiple CDNs will tell you that many times, the number of users they see via the tracking technology in their player and the number tracked via the content distribution network, rarely match up.

For the event, all streams I traced were coming back to Akamai which was clearly involved in the event and when I looked at Akamai’s reporting dashboard during the event, their “live stream” count never went above 3M. And that’s 3M for all of Akamai’s customers on their network, not just YouTube’s. It is possible that both YouTube and Akamai were both doing distribution of the video for the event, but people I spoke to who traced the stream in Europe and Asia all saw it being delivered by Akamai as well. One thing that was clear from this webcast is that Google still can’t seem to handle large-scale live events on their network. For the recent Presidential Debate and PSY concert, both of them crashed on YouTube and doing trace routes during those events, didn’t show any CDN provider like Akamai being involved.

For this event, the live stream that Akamai hosted worked without any hiccups that I saw or that were reported, but the traffic in general to YouTube’s website caused a lot of 502 errors with the site being down for me and many others. While the media is so quick to want to call something the biggest ever, Google has never provided their methodology for how they count “simultaneous” streams and I’m sure they never will. As we have seen from past YouTube events, like the Olympics, they have never given out an exact number, but rather said “more than”, so I don’t expect them to break out the Red Bull webcast with any really detailed numbers, with methodology.

Far too many people in the media and in the industry want to judge the success of a webcast solely by the number of people who watched the event, rather than using that number as just one of many data points that need to be viewed together to judge the success of an event. But the biggest thing the media is missing, that no one has discussed yet, is who made money from this event? Why is the media so quick to want to talk stream numbers after an event, but then never looks at the bigger picture of what live events mean for content owners and publishers who are trying to monetize content? I didn’t get any ads during the event, so it does not look like YouTube monetized the stream and the way YouTube is throwing money at content owners, I’d be willing to bet that Red Bull didn’t even have to pay YouTube for the live stream, since YouTube was a sponsor of the event. The media should be focusing on what the business model was for this webcast and not simply how many streams it delivered.

So what is the largest record for a live event on the web, in terms of simultaneous numbers? The answer is, no one truly knows. None of the data provided after live events is usually very detailed, validated by a third-party and many large-scale webcasts take place with inflated numbers. The largest event I know of, based on the data I was given at the time and from research I did, was the 2009 Presidential inauguration. At the time, the media reported that Akamai did 7.7M streams of the event, but once again, got the data wrong. Akamai did 7.7M live streams of all their customers combined that day, of which 3.8M were the Obama inauguration, as verified by Akamai directly. Between Akamai, Limelight, Highwinds and a few smaller CDNs, all vendors combined, I estimate they did between 7-8M live simultaneous streams of the 2009 inauguration. But no one knows the exact number. And talking about business models, for all of the bandwidth Akamai did for those 3.8M streams, the company told me back in 2009 that they made less than $100,000 on the business. So for those that think there is a lot of money in distributing live events on the web, there isn’t.

Webcasting events live on the web has been going on for more than 15 years now and it’s time the media stops getting all giddy with bandwidth numbers and instead, starts asking the questions of how this medium can be monetized, when content owners will start to make money from live events and what changes need to take place in the market so that webcasts can be profitable events for content owners, as opposed to simply a way for someone to show off meaningless stream count numbers. In 2007 I wrote a post entitled “Webcasting Large Entertainment Events Still Unprofitable“, and five years later, as an industry, we’re still not seeing signs or discussions taking place about the business side of webcasting big events. The media needs to focus on the business, not the technology. Without a business model behind it, the technology is useless if content owners can’t cover their costs of using or deploying it.

And for those members of the media that having been picking up on the webcasting story over the last few hours, make sure you question the data. I’ve done a few interviews already where some have said to me that”YouTube said” they did 8 million streams. YouTube has not said anything of the sort. The numbers you are quoting come from articles in the Huffington Post and WSJ and none of them have quoted or said they have spoken to anyone at YouTube.

More Data On Large Webcast Events:

Akamai: About 3.8 M Simultaneous Obama Streams, Details Capping Of Customers

NBC Failed With Their Super Bowl Webcast, But Wants Us To Believe It Was A Success

– MSN Releases Traffic Numbers For LiveEarth Webcast, Sort Of

Oprah Webcast Draws 500,000 Simultaneous Viewers

Inauguration Numbers: CDNs Deliver Over 8 Million Simultaneous Video Streams Won’t Say Why Their Debate Webcast Failed

MSNBC Debate Webcast Constantly Buffering, Poor Audio

YouTube’s Live Event As Overhyped As The Company

Webcasting Large Entertainment Events Still Unprofitable

Does Anyone Care About The Business Of Live Events, Or Just The Traffic?

World Cup Streaming Numbers Show Online Video Not Replacing TV

Free Giveaway: Win One Of Two Google Nexus 7 Tablets

Right now, in the $200 price range, Google’s Nexus 7 tablet is the one to beat. I’ve got dozens of tablets I use for testing and between the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Samsung Galaxy 2 and Blackberry Playbook, the Nexus 7 tablet outshines them all. This is your chance to get hands-on with the Nexus 7 as I have two 8GB units to give away to some lucky readers of my blog.

To enter the drawing, all you have to do is leave one comment on this post and make sure you submit the comment with a valid email. The drawing is open to anyone with a mailing address in the U.S. and I will select the first winner at random next month. Good luck! The drawing is now over. Congrats to Kristie D. who won the item.