HLS Was the Topic du Jour at IBC
Streaming protocols are getting people talking and the buzz is loudest about Apple HTTP Live Streaming.

Steve Mack, who was in on the ground floor at RealNetworks in 1995 and who wrote the original Streaming Media Bible in 2002, once said to me “Metadata isn’t cool. But the stuff you can do with metadata is very cool.”

The same might be said of streaming protocols. The technologies behind the acronyms RTMP, RTSP, HTTP, UDP, and TCP might not be as sexy as topics such as social media, monetization, and even that other acronym du jour, OTT, but without them, none of the sexy stuff would work.

That fact was never as clear to me as it was at this year’s International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) at Amsterdam’s RAI (which, if you must know, represents Rijwiel en Automobiel Industrie, or “Bicycle and Automotive Industry,” in Dutch). The show is similar to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show held in Las Vegas each spring, but IBC has a much different vibe to it than its U.S. counterpart. It feels more relaxed, but to call it such would seem to suggest that it’s somehow less serious. Maybe it’s the tasty herring sandwiches rather than the lousy pizza slices available from the concessionaires. But all in all, I’d say it’s more civilized. There are plenty of major deals being made on the show floor, but there’s also a sense of camaraderie and joie de vivre absent from the bright lights, big business of NAB.

Most of the enthusiasm I saw was not from the monetization or user interface folks but from the hard-core geeks, the ones gushing about the latest protocol to be reduced to an acronym, HLS, or Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming. The protocol’s initials-only status is so new, in fact, that I heard several folks who are intimately familiar with HTTP Live Streaming mutter under their breath, “What the hell is HLS?” Nobody was calling it HLS at NAB in April.

It’s indicative of the fact that, hype to the contrary, HTML5 is not the biggest impact that the iPad and iPhone hath wrought upon our industry. Check out Jan Ozer’s take on HTML5 video in his subtly titled Producer’s View column, “Enough About HTML5 Video Already” on page 88. Needless to say, we don’t agree with him, as evidenced by the HTML5 Video Summit we’re putting on as part of this year’s Streaming Media West. Hype or not, organizations are making the leap to HTML5 video, and the summit offers a great opportunity for them to learn more about how to deploy it, as well as to debate a bit about whether we’ve all been snookered. (Note, however, that while Jan might be tired of hearing about HTML5 video, he’s not so sick of it that he won’t be offering his popular How-To sessions for encoding for HTML5 and iDevices.)

But there’s no questioning the importance of HLS; even Muhammad Adobe came to Mt. Apple by introducing HLS delivery in the latest version of Flash Media Server, and everyone was touting their HLS compatibility at IBC. This relatively recent refocusing of our industry on protocols rather than formats is significant. For what it’s worth, I didn’t hear anyone at IBC talking about WebM. Perhaps Google should have renamed the VP8 codec with a true acronym?

Kidding aside, the advances playing out in the protocol realm bring home the fundamental issues about how best to send relatively large video files over growing-but-not-unlimited bandwidth. And as Tim Siglin points out in his Streams of Thought column, “No Country for Old Technologies?” (p. 86), HLS relies on an older packaging protocol, the reliable but perhaps outmoded M2TS. Tim suggests that perhaps now is the time to pursue a solution that’s built from the ground up for streaming to tablets and other mobile devices rather than basing one on an old technology designed for broadcast. 

This article was originally published as "TBC at IBC," in the Winter 2011 issue of Streaming Media European Edition.