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Redefinitions... Again
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, June 2000

While streaming video was at least part of the product offerings from many of the companies exhibiting at NAB, what the term "streaming" meant to many of these companies was frequently quite different and almost always far from clear.

This semantic confusion was extended further by the mix (or mix up) of approaches that are included under another major umbrella term - DTV, or interactive TV, or whatever that's called.

Thus, it seems that in many ways we are back where we started. We are back in a similar state of confusion or lack of focus that is uncomfortably similar to the early days of multimedia as well as to the early days of digital video. Like it or not, the truth is that the online world within which we are creating the new medium of the video Web offers more options and significant variations than one simple term like "streaming video" can possibly provide. Or, alternately, as the Institute of the Future's Paul Saffo has said, "Technology can create exciting opportunities. It also overwhelms us with choices."

The coming of video to the Web is nothing less than the transformation of TV into a more democratic video distribution environment.
As communication professionals, these choices present an ever-increasing set of challenges that are redefining our businesses. At the same time, this new medium itself is still being defined. Like business people of all kinds, in today's world, we all face extraordinarily rapid and dramatic changes.

In fact, at the risk of sounding like a cliche, I would say that as video professionals, we are truly on the cutting edge of these changes. After all, for better or worse, TV has proven itself to be the most powerful influencer of our society's culture; and the coming of video to the Web is nothing less than the transformation of TV into a more democratic video distribution environment.

One of the most obvious areas where definitions and redefinitions got in the way at NAB this year was in the competing arenas of video on the web and the emerging broadcast technology front of DTV or interactive TV. While this later new medium is certain to be part of our future; personally, I'm not interested. To me, in a media world that is literally being redefined by the Internet, the incremental quality improvements and enhanced functionalities of DTV pale in comparison to the wild new world of the web.

Of course, the quality is inferior; but the participatory-style democratization that is offered only on the Net means everything to me. And it is not just that I think that the idea of putting more media power into the hands of more people is a good idea. As everyone knows, the Internet is here to stay; and I don't think that it is an overstatement to say that ten years from now, we will see that the Web has had a comparable impact to the invention of TV itself. I am quite certain that the impact of interactive TV will not be nearly as significant.

And with the inevitable, continuing availability of more and more bandwidth, the new online, interactive media forms that are just now being invented are what I believe will define the most important components of our foreseeable media future.

Redefinitions can also lead to deceptions. Because the video Web is emerging in an environment of innovation, almost anyone can attempt to define things on their own terms. We've already seen attempts at ratings warps and all kinds of manipulated number crunching such as various software vendors claiming conflicting numbers of media player downloads, and so forth.

In other words, much of why the streaming world can be so confusing is the fault of the folks who are attempting to bring us these "new solutions." Perhaps the most "flagrant foul" in this department was delivered by Microsoft in March. Arch-rival RealNetworks licensed Microsoft's audio codec for its RealJukebox audio player/recorder. According to Rob Grady, product manager, consumer division, RealNetworks, this deal was the ninth codec that Real licensed for RealJukebox and represented just 2% of their market. In other words, it was a very minor deal and of little significance. Yet, Microsoft spun the story into a headline that read (and I quote), "Windows Media Poised to Become Universal Format for Digital Audio."

"RealNetworks and Microsoft agree: RealNetworks is 'The Clear Leader in Internet Streaming Software.'"
When I spoke with Michael Aldridge, Product Manager in the Digital Media Division of Microsoft, the conversation was all about the importance of a single standard (of course, Microsoft's). He also emphasized the "phenomenal momentum" that he claimed for the Windows Media Player. He also explained how Microsoft was going to provide THE "platform" on which others will innovate. Never mind that according to a November Nielsen/NetRatings study, Microsoft is still third behind Real and QuickTime in the number of users who actually use their player to watch video on the web.

This quibbling over statistics and leadership was further reflected in a May press release from Real with the title, "RealNetworks and Microsoft agree: RealNetworks is 'The Clear Leader in Internet Streaming Software.'" The source of the Microsoft statement referenced in this release was a legal response to the US Government in the Microsoft antitrust case. In this case, Microsoft wanted to minimize its market position, so it told a different story.

I find it sad that Microsoft is still trying to have it both ways. On one hand they attempt to define the standard and the platform and minimize the way that they use their monopolies to leverage unfair advantage. On the other hand, they promote the competition when that is more convenient. Somehow I, perhaps naively, expect more maturity out of business people. Suffice it to say that the web media industry needs more straight talk and less irresponsible hype.

Speaking of the video Web's need for more useful information, my long time readers know that I am an active proponent of information programs of all kinds that span "the Grand Canyon Gap between people and technology."

One of the most innovative announcements at NAB in this regard was the Media 100 led educational strategic alliance for a new web site called Media100 has built an alliance that includes its own companies such as Terran Interactive, Digital Origin and Wired Inc., as well as the DV camcorder masters at Canon, Internet audio experts, Beatnik, and a video portal called Digital Fridge.

Their broad and worthy goal is to "enable anyone with a PC (and by implication, a DV camcorder) to become an Internet broadcaster."

Media 100 has taken its own reinvention and redefinition process very seriously; and they are apparently continuing to build Internet momentum following on a series of three major acquisitions in only nine months. The first and certainly the most significant from a video Web point of view, was Terran Interactive, makers of Media Cleaner Pro. Media Cleaner Pro is the one software tool on the video Web which is a clear leader. While it may not be "the most important software application since Photoshop" as was claimed by Media 100 CEO, John Molinari at their press conference; but it is so valuable that former arch-rival, Avid has licensed Media Cleaner Lite. I take this as an indication of Media 100's success at repositioning itself as an Internet company.

Their acquisition binge also includes a bridge to the DV hardware world as well as to the world of DVD and MPEG authoring, via its new subsidiary, Wired Inc. And Media 100 has also created a window to both entry-level DV NLE editing software and other unannounced opportunities, through its acquisition of Digital Origin and their Edit DV software line. Among the announcements at Media 100's press conference at NAB was a future promise of "the biggest change in its Mac product line since 1994." Stay tuned over the summer for future developments.

Now, more than ever, I think that video professionals should be considering redefining their businesses. Personally, I used to be in the video business. Now, I'm in the Internet business.

In this way, I find some real parallels between my business and Media 100's. Not only are we both redefining our businesses as Internet companies, but we also recognize both the opportunity and the excitement of helping to define a new, rapidly evolving medium. As Kevin Bourke, Media 100's Director of Media Relations said with a grin, "Streaming is, like, so January." Apparently, this new medium already needs a new definition.

The demand for visual communication professionals and designer/producers who know how to tell a story along a timeline has never been greater. My recommendation is that rather than competing with other video producers, there are far greater and more exciting opportunities to collaborate with web developers and to make yourself a real player on the video Web.

In any case, I implore you to stay tuned.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]


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