Hey, Streaming Industry: Fix This!
We spend a lot of time looking at what’s new, shiny, and exciting in the sector. But we must always keep the check-and-balance system running in the back of the mind, and there are still some rough edges in very basic parts of the various streaming ecosystems out there that must not be forgotten as we run headlong into the exciting new features of the day.
Let’s start with the cord-cutting experience. Yes, it’s possible; yes, the content choice is better; yes, I can pay to escape adverts; yes, the range of places I can access my choice of content is exploding; and yes, all in all, I am a happy cord cutter.
However, let me also highlight some things about the experience I absolutely hate.
We are in 2018. We have seen a massive improvement in core network services ensuring that services are alwaysavailable to us. But in the home, where technology is still essentially based on “appliances” (the enemy of modern scalable system architects), it’s like Windows 95. I have to reboot my router at least once a fortnight—not because the ISP connection has failed, but because my DHCP address has been active so long it has a lower priority than my neighbor’s more recently rebooted router, and in a straight-out bandwidth contention battle for packets from the network, my neighbour is winning…until I reboot and “ta-da,” all my services suddenly jump back into optimal. And it’s not just the router. Once I reboot the router, the same happens to the DHCP addresses on my LAN, so when I reboot my router, I then have to reboot my powerline Ethernet switch, and then I have to reboot my Apple TV/Roku /Smart TV, etc.
This means that when I get buffering as I sit down at 8.30 p.m. to watch the next episode of my favorite show and I do a speed check and find out my bandwidth is low, I then have to wait 3 minutes for the router, check its speed, and when it checks OK, reboot my powerline Ethernet (waiting another minute for that), and then reboot my device (another 2 minutes), and then pick my way through the menu to my program, and hope that is was my kit (and not the CDN delivering the stream) and that the stream will finally play OK. To be honest, it’s about 10 minutes before I can finally start to eat my cold TV dinner.
Why my ISP can't speed check me periodically and give me the option to reboot or address the issue, in today’s modern computing architecture age, I just don't know. And why my router is an appliance that needs a reboot—rather than a small computer with a routing process which could be restarted in application space only—I have no idea. Please, ISPs, roll out vCPE and NFV. The investment willsave you money in support calls and churn alone.
And while we are at it, for God’s sake, sort out the EPG and menu on almost everything out there. Your EPGs are rubbish, sluggish, badly formatted, hard to navigate, and—despite (or maybe because of) being full of lovely swiping page transitions—it takes forever to find good content. You have wonderful GPUs on nominal cost hardware, but you seem to be forgetting to write EPG code that can run well on the CPU. It’s not all about the video decode folks; I don't care about HEVC or AV1. Frankly, on a 42" TV, I want a 16:9 “watchable” video—the delivery optimisation of one codec vs. another is no concern of mine. Before you chase any more codec upgrades, please spend some money on the CPU and get some smart engineers to write you a good EPG. And before you release it to the public, make your own family sit and use it for at least a month.
You do know this sort of stuff puts people off right?
While we are looking at the living room experience, please can we sort out Airplay, Chromecast, and other “flick and fling” technologies so they interoperate. It is unvelievably annoying when using those technologies that, in order to share stuff to a main screen, we have to change which device we are using if our friends are on Android and we are on IOS, etc.
That is also compounded by most apps not allowing search while watching a video. Think about playing music from your phone via YouTube to your TV or hi-fi during a dinner party. While one tune is playing, I want to queue up the next one from the dinner guests. But I can't, at least not without losing the song that’s currently playing. This is compounded by breaking the vibe of any party when the phone that is playing the music gets a call. If I am outputting the sound to Airplay, Chromecast, etc, then my phone’s local audio devices are notbeing used, and they have plenty enough power to multitask a simple audio stream to the party while allowing me to take a call. So sort it out.
Next on the list of gripes is pushing audio out of web page adverts uninvited.
When i open a web page on my laptop, I honestly resent your brand the moment you auto-play a video with the audio on. If that happens in a workplace, or worse while I am researching a detail online while listening to a conference session I am attending—leaving me lurching for the mute button, red-faced, while the speakers think I am ignoring them—it makes me hate your brand. All audio advertising should be mute until clicked (not hovered, but clicked, OK?)
Sort it out. Or face #backlash.
When it works, adaptive bitrate is excellent. When it doesn't, it is dreadful. I regularly watch streams from all the major providers and most of the time I simply get “watchable” quality (which is all I require), and like everyone I hate it when the quality downgrades because of bandwidth limitations—but I prefer that to rebuffering. Until, of course, your ABR is set up wrong and I get rebuffering as you try desperately to change my stream quality. Switch down your bitrate ladder quickly. Set your systems to switch the bitrate up very slowly, and pre-cache it before you do. We are not watching as some form of ABR experiment to discover the highest quality you can push at us by trial and error. No, we are watching to follow the story of the content. Do not interrupt that. Ever.
Oh for goodness’ sake. Why are you still pushing Flash at Mac browsers? [Editor's note: Mea culpa.] And please don't force me to attend a “live” webinar and fiddle my diary to then play me a 30-minute prerecorded session. Just make it on-demand in advance and schedule the Q&A on its own.
And stop screen grabbing slides into stills. Either screencast a presenter’s machine, or send really high quality readable slides as still JPEGs. I really resent joining a live webcast and listening to a (pre-recorded) speaker talk about a slide that i can't read.
Also, sort your audio quality out, prepare your speakers, and have moderators who know what they are doing. This is your brand you are presenting. Streaming companies talking about their superb quality audio and video delivery over an 8Kbps 1995 audio codec make me laugh. When the speakers are in conference with more than half a second of latency between them, they get confused, talk over each other, and so on. Just use a service that works: Your kids are doing much better streaming their games using free tools. Demand your commercial providers do better.
The Latency Lie
Stop talking about the "neighbors cheering a goal which they have seen on broadcast before you saw it on your streaming device." You have never really been in this situation. It is an anecdote, and while it is easy to recreate it to substantiate your story, you havebeen telling people that story to justify your investment into latency. Yes, we are all working on latency. Yes, betting/sports fans will have received Twitter updates before they see the goal, but frankly that probably draws their attention to the stream, and if they were that worried they would have watched it on TV anyway. It’s a silly example. Don't use it any more.
While we are on latency, please stop talking about latency which is lower than the GOP lengths of the delivered video. If you don't understand what I mean by that, then you are faking it.And no: Peer-to-peer does not give you a quality benefit nor a latency benefit. It sacrifices quality of service in exchange for cost savings. That’s all it offers.
Advertising Still Sucks
Finally, note that advertising is not cool. With subscriber revenues now getting a strong foothold, the ad-sponsored freemium market might just be a market that doesn't have or doesn't want to part with money even for a subscription: It makes them even less likely to want to buy your stuff, so simply stop trying to aggressively drive your brand message. Distracting everyone from the core content they actually want to consume with in-your-face adverts ends up making your advert the enemy. If no publicity is bad publicity, then please opt for no publicity and get out of my face.
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04 Dec 2018