The MacWorld keynote by Apple iCEO, Steve Jobs,
featured a streaming video showcase that linked both real broadcast
networks and a new, virtual one. This melding of cyber-hyperbole
and real promise was called QuickTime TV or QTV.
The scene was July's MacWorld Expo in New York.
I wasn't there, but I watched most of Mr. Jobs' keynote ten days
later on the Internet, on QTV.
I also interviewed Apple's Senior Product Line Manager for QuickTime,
Steve Bannerman, and Apple's QTV technology partner, Akamai Technologies'
Senior Product Manager, Ray Weaver. Then, in order to get another
perspective, I also had an e-mail "conversation" with Broadcast.com's
president and co-founder, Mark Cuban.
quest was to answer the simple question: "What the heck is QTV?"
And while I was at it, I tried to figure out QTV's relevance to
the future of streaming media. My ironic discovery was that although
I think streaming QuickTime has a lot of potential, that promise
doesn't have much to do with QTV. I also think that during his keynote,
Mr. Jobs substantially over-stated streaming QuickTime's current
realities. For those of you who have watched Apple's visionary leader
before, this will come as no surprise.
Appropriately, Jobs opened his keynote "show" with some show
biz schtick with actor Noah Wyle, who impersonated Jobs both on
stage at MacWorld as well as in the light-weight TBS made-for-TV
movie, "Pirates of Silicon Valley." Then, once Jobs completed the
required reinforcement of Apple's remarkable recovery to what seems
to be consistently improving firm financial footing, the first products
that he discussed were QuickTime 4 and it latest extension, QuickTime
But before he got to QTV, Jobs underscored what he called "the largest
Internet event in history." Never mind that this was not
a streaming event. In fact, it was neither streaming, nor an "event"
at all because it took place over months. It was an impressive total
of 23 million downloads (or 400 terrabytes of video data) better
known as the QuickTime version of the trailer for the movie, "Star
Wars Episode 1, The Phantom Menace." (See my April Videography,
Video Web column, "Downloading Lives!".)
To be sure, the Star Wars trailer was a major QuickTime success
story. But this was due to the quality it demonstrated in its downloadable
form, not in its new streaming configuration.
THE STATE OF STREAMING QT
While I think that the work that Steve Jobs has done in turning
Apple around is nothing less than miraculous - and even though I've
seen him "pitch" many times -- during his QuickTime keynote segment,
I was bothered by his over-the-top hype. I bring this up because
I believe that these dramatic over-statements do a disservice to
both Apple and to the streaming industry in general.
For example, his first somewhat radical claim was, "We do live Internet
streaming better than anybody." In my opinion, it would have been
far more effective for him to make a promise that is based on current
realities. For example, he might have said, "It won't be long before
we do live Internet streaming better than anyone." Don't misunderstand
me, I like where Apple is going with streaming QuickTime. I just
don't think they've arrived yet.
VIRTUAL VIDEO REALITIES
That's because from what I've seen so far (and as confirmed by other
professional collegues), the statement that Jobs made is simply
not true. While I've been impressed with some of the image quality
I've seen from QuickTime streams, overall the experience has been
less than what I consider the current standard. As I write this,
in my subjective but professional opinion, a better experience is
being provided by the streaming leader, RealNetworks and their latest
G2 configuration (see my December, 1998, Videography, Video Web
column, "RealNetworks New G2 Standard").
The main problem that I have experienced with streaming QuickTime
is that, so far, it does not successfully make the audio track the
top priority. The result is that when a dial-up Internet connection
inevitably degrades, streaming QuickTime movies just keep playing
video while the audio drops out. As a result, you lose the meaning
(or in the case of a music video, the lyrics and the beat). With
RealPlayer G2, after using SureStream to "downshift" to a lower
bitrate stream if necessary, the system first drops video frames;
but before it loses the audio, it stops and rebuffers. Not great,
but at least you don't miss the point of what you're watching. I
believe Real's approach is the right solution for today's far from
perfect video Web.
In fact, Apple's Steve Bannerman acknowledged this problem and told
me that it has been fixed with version 1.1 of the QuickTime server.
A new version which he said was available immediately. However,
as of the time of this writing, using Apple's showcase streaming
event, the Jobs keynote as my evidence, this is still the case.
At the same time, it's fair to say and a safe assumption that streaming
QuickTime, like all of these technologies, will continue to improve.
But, bottom line, the truth right now is that Apple is late to the
streaming "party" and, as a result, they are still playing catch
And then, Jobs said something that I think is insulting to our colleagues
in the streaming industry in general. In the close of his QuickTime
segment, he tried to underscore his technology investment with Akamai
Technologies (see below) when he said, referring to his competitors
and the need for high quality, broadband streaming networks, "The
other guys haven't even thought about how to deal with these quality
issues." Excuse me? Not only have "the others" been thinking about
it, they've been doing something it for months and in some cases
does he think the folks at Broadcast.com, the Real Broadcast Network,
[email protected], InterVU, TvontheWeb and many others, do for a living?
(It's probably worth noting that I would not be so certain of these
quotes from Chairman Jobs had I I not had the ability to go back
and check them on Apple's streaming archive.)
DEFINING BROADCAST NETWORKS
On the surface, what QTV seems to be is a kind of virtual cable
system, a menu of broadcast networks on the Internet. After all,
a big part of the QTV announcement was a new assortment of high-profile
streaming content providers that included ABC News, Disney, ESPN,
RollingStone.com and VH1. These were added to BBC WORLD, Bloomberg,
FOX News Online, FOX Sports Online, HBO, NPR, WGBH Boston and The
Weather Channel on the "live" QuickTime
4 showcase web site. However, the tactic of showcase name content
is a familiar trick to gain visibility, and it's a long way from
marketplace acceptance where people are earning a living using your
On the technical side, Jobs differentiated QTV by calling it a virtual
"broadcast network." This component of QTV was made possible by
Apple's announcement that it would "combine technologies" with Akamai
Technologies (pronounced "AH-kuh-my," a Hawaiian word that means
"intelligent, clever and cool.") The result is a "streamed content
delivery service." In the press release, Akamai chairman and CEO,
George Conrades, promised "Apple and Akamai's technologies will
elevate streaming media to a new level of performance not yet realized
on today's Internet."
Although their technology sounds promising, that remains to be seen
because Akamai has not yet upgraded its network of 900 servers to
support streaming. According to Senior Product Manager, Ray Weaver,
the Akamai network of intelligent servers has proven itself capable
of improving web graphic delivery from 2x to 8x for high-traffic
web clients like Yahoo! and JCrew who need to improve web-based
digital media delivery for millions of users. They do this with
their proprietary software that's implemented on a distributed network
of 900 servers in 15 countries across 25 backbones and ISP's.
Weaver claims that they will bring this same kind of performance
to the streaming space. The essence of their service is proprietary
software that instantaneously finds the content you want on the
best server on the network for you. This selection is determined
intelligently by their software depending on your geographic location,
the status and content on various servers and a "weather map" of
Internet traffic at that moment.
I was also told that by the time you read this that Akamai will
announce the implementation of their "broadcast network" as "platform
agnostic" meaning that content providers who prefer RealNetworks
or Microsoft can use it as well.
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