Flashpoint: Live Flash Video—Ready for Prime Time?

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There’s no escaping it: Flash Video is everywhere, and this trend looks set to continue. Hitwise recently reported that YouTube has seen a massive 32% growth in traffic over a 12-month period and now accounts for more than 73% of online video traffic—all of it Flash. Add to that MySpaceTV, Google Video, Yahoo! Video, and Break.com, and you reach a figure of more than 90% of video traffic across the web being powered by Flash. It’s likely that Hulu—using Flash Media Server to stream its online library—will also feature in the next set of statistics.

So while there’s no denying that Flash Video is widely popular, it’s the live streaming side that’s currently receiving a significant amount of interest. The interest is manifesting itself into two rough categories: user-generated live streams and professional webcasts.

While many of the live streaming portals are still quite niche and mainly adopted by the younger generations, there’s clear evidence of the rise in their popularity—particularly sites such as Justin.tv and Stickam, where users stream live for extended periods of time. The peak of this so-called “lifecasting” must have been the live streaming that took place during the Apple WWDC keynote in June. I was logged on to Leo Laporte’s Stickam-powered chatroom and witnessed a peak user count of 9,500—this made following the text chat conversations rather difficult (imagine a teleprompter running at 20 times the normal speed). Laporte ingested live streams from various sources (mainly from Ustream.TV) and then republished them live via his own Stickam room. This was live blogging on steroids.

What excited me the most was the fact that technology enabled me, sitting in my garden in the U.K., to participate in Steve Jobs’ keynote. Remarkable when you consider that it wasn’t “officially” being broadcast at all.

The steadily rising popularity of live Flash is set to continue in 2008 and 2009. The BBC has just announced that BBC One, its flagship channel, is to be streamed live over the web beginning in 2009, and I would expect other BBC channels to follow. This is on top of the existing on-demand library that archives all BBC programming of the last 7 days and offers it as a streaming service—the well-known iPlayer—as well as for download.

My guess is that this new live offering will also be Flash-based, and the BBC tested the technology during the UEFA Euro 2008 event, streaming several matches live over the web. It was low bitrate yet very watchable even when blown up to full screen on a large monitor.

So whatever happened to the notion that Flash Video is too expensive, hard to scale, or lacking in quality? It seems that these are things of the past (if they were ever true), with dramatic price reductions for Flash Media Server, improved codec support, more detailed controls of the playback experience, and an origin/edge license as part of the package. Users are asking for Flash Video in unprecedented numbers. Jon Alexander, product marketing director at Velocix, reports an “uptake of Flash Video amongst 80% of new video customers” since the beginning of 2008 and a “dramatic increase in the number of Flash streaming requests”. He also noticed an even split between Windows Media and Flash on the live streaming front, while pricing is uniform across all of Velocix’s streaming formats.

In a small way I feel that we’re witnessing a Flash Video revolution all over again, and this time live streaming is the battleground. At the same time, user-generated live streams are a new phenomenon, and Flash is so far the only widely available platform that allows ad hoc streaming via consumer webcams and microphones.

Admittedly more high-end tools for live Flash streaming have only recently emerged, and support for codecs such as H.264 video and AAC audio, which deliver a high-quality streaming experience, still feels fresh. On the flipside, events such as the WWDC keynote demonstrate that codecs and bitrates are often secondary to accessibility and the widest possible reach.

Events such as the Masters Golf Tournament or Operation MySpace from Kuwait have raised the bar for live internet webcasting experiences, offering full-screen viewing, multiple bitrates, and live data overlays in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Expect users to demand this type of experience on a regular basis. The tools are out there and so is the bandwidth; what’s left is for us to think outside of the traditional webcasting box and ask, “What could we do to make our live event stand out from all the others? How about a Q&A session with live video from the audience, instead of the traditional one-way street? Or real-time voting during a political event?” And that’s just scratching the surface.

The technology is ready; now it’s time to leverage it with innovative ideas and then take it to the masses.

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