Buyer's Guide: Online Video Platforms
This article appears in the February/March issue of Streaming Media magazine, the annual Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook. In these Buyer's Guide articles, we don't claim to cover every product or vendor in a particular category, but rather provide our readers with the information they need to make smart purchasing decisions, sometimes using specific vendors or products as exemplars of those features and services.
Online video platforms (OVPs) encode, publish, and monitor on-demand and live video content. If your publishing needs are straightforward, any OVP will do, and price will likely guide your decision. Once you go beyond the basics, however, the field becomes narrower. In this article, I’ll focus primarily on the advanced features now available from a limited group of OVPs. I’ll include a checklist so you can identify the features important to you and track whether the OVPs you’re considering offer them.
Upload and Ingest
Virtually all OVPs offer browser-based single or multiple file upload. More advanced features include the ability to compress before uploading, which is great when upload bandwidth is limited. Other convenience features include uploading from a drop folder, FTP-driven upload, and the ability to write to the OVPs application programming interface for automated upload from your content management system. If mobile users will contribute, you’ll need a service that accepts mobile uploads, and if uploading becomes a consistent bottleneck, consider an OVP with upload acceleration via technologies such as Aspera, Inc.’s fasp.
Standard features here include simple file management, such as deletion or metadata editing, and the ability to manually group files into a play list. Beyond this, if you have multiple groups uploading to the same account, each group needs the abilities to manage its own content separately and to establish rights for the various users.
Manual playlists are nice, but dynamic playlists based upon popularity, content classes, or tags are often more useful. Some OVPs now offer basic editing capabilities that let you set cues for chapter points and advertising insertion; some OVPs offer the ability to trim and join multiple clips together into a single clip. If you’re working with licensed content, you may need the ability to restrict viewing by geographical location or to roll out your content geographically over a fixed schedule, on both your sites and those sites embedding your content.
Most OVPs let you choose and customize a player template for size, included playback controls, and colors; they also let you select how and where playlists are displayed. More advanced OVPs let you completely reskin the player, adjust size, and add spaces for branding, advertising, and closed captions. For computer playback, you’ll want a unified, customizable player for Flash and HTML5, while for mobile playback, you’ll want templates that include interface controls and gesture support optimized for mobile viewing.
The well-heeled player of 2012 needs links to social media sites so your viewers can like and tweet to their hearts’ content. Ratings and comments are wonderful interactive tools for building stickiness and community too. If support for Section 508 is on your road map, be sure to check for this, and if you’ll be monetizing via advertising, the player must support that as well.
By now, most OVPs support single stream playback to Flash and iOS devices. Though adaptive streaming is far from pervasive at this point, if you’re choosing an OVP in 2012, adaptive streaming for all supported platforms (Flash, iOS, Android) should be on its short-term road map, if not already available. For Flash, RTMP-based Dynamic Streaming is acceptable for smaller sites, though larger sites should offer HTTP-based Dynamic Streaming as well.
To implement the multiple device support discussed in the Video Player section, the OVP must be able to query the remote viewer to determine playback capabilities and then direct the viewer to the proper set of streams. If you plan apps for common mobile platforms, ask if the OVP has app toolkits for your target platforms. Beyond iOS and Android, you should be able to identify and reach most other current mobile devices via HTML5 support, though that’s single stream only until a standard such as DASH is widely implemented.
Beyond producing the H.264 streams Flash, iOS, and Android distribution, in 2012 you may need to reach some desktops or mobile devices with the WebM codec, so it’s worth asking about WebM support. Depending upon the breadth of your distribution strategy, you may also need to produce for over-the-top distribution or to support the TV Everywhere initiative.
If security is an issue, ask about encryption and access control, such as the RTMPE and HTTPS encryption protocols, or limiting viewing to certain IP address ranges or geographical restrictions. If your video will be viewed on multiple platforms, security measures must span all platforms, while in an enterprise setting, it’s useful to integrate access control with other corporate IT systems and LDAP/Active Directory portals. Your OVP should provide plug-ins for uploading and embedding into content management systems such as Drupal, Blackboard, and WordPress; corporate portals such as SharePoint; and various learning management systems used in the corporate environment.
To help get the word out, the OVP should offer modules for video search engine optimization as well as modules for integrating playback with Facebook and Twitter. It should also offer a streamlined function for syndicating your videos to YouTube and other UGC sites.
Finally, many larger OVPs also support live streaming, which is a great way to present live and on-demand content in a unified player. Ideally, live support should include all the advertising- and security-related features of on-demand content as well as specific live features such as DVR playback, chat, and real-time integration with Facebook and Twitter.
If you’re planning to monetize your video, make sure that your candidate OVPs support pay-per-view and subscription viewing and offer full support for all advertising networks on all relevant target platforms. The OVP should support a full range of ad types, such as preroll, midroll, and postroll, while the player should support all relevant display ad sizes. Several OVPs also offer clickable advertisements during the video, which can significantly increase click-through rates in product-related videos.
Virtually all OVPs have distribution contracts with one or more CDNs, though many larger OVPs allow you to select your own. Enterprise publishers with significant distribution within the firewall should check if the OVP has a strategy for enterprise delivery, such as delivering internal content via the corporate LAN, perhaps even using peer-to-peer delivery to cut internal network congestion.
Most OVPs are offered as a software as a service, though some are also available for installation behind the firewall or in a third-party cloud. If on-premises operation is critical to your application, ask about this early in the process. If you need to own the code, ask about this as well; there are some open source providers that provide access to source code for safekeeping or customization.
Last but certainly not least, reporting and analytics are critical to successful video publishing. At this point, most OVPs offer standard reports such as content drop-off, views by video, and the like, but you should scan through the standard reports to make sure that they’re sufficient for your needs. Also ask if there’s a programming interface to create your own reports and plug-ins to communicate with other third-party analytics programs or corporate portals. If you need highly specialized reporting, such as the ability to track if an employee watched a certain video all the way through, there are several OVPs that can support this, but it’s certainly not universal.
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