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The Pomp & Promise of QuickTime TV
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, September, 1999
Part 1 of 2

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.

Steve Jobs at MacWorldMy 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.

THE POMP
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 TV.

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 up.

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 for years.

What does he think the folks at Broadcast.com, the Real Broadcast Network, Excite@Home, 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 technology.

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.

Part 1 of 2
This article continues with comments from Broadcast.com's Mark Cuban
on the next page>>>


Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at jon@combridges.com
     
   
 
 
 
   
 
 

 

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