When Online Video Is Everywhere, What Will Be Left to Innovate?

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The other day, I was asked about my biggest fear for our sector. My answer: it may well become a victim of its own success.

In October 1996, the month I worked on my very first webcast, I recall reading a Wired magazine article titled, “The Embedded Internet." The part that absolutely stuck in my brain, and has inspired me in the way King Arthur’s knights were inspired by the mythology of the Holy Grail (forget that Monty Python movie for now and concentrate—this bit is important!) was from David St. Charles, then CEO of ISI (one of the big embedded system companies of the day): “If you want the internet to be everywhere, it has to be visible nowhere. It has to be unseen, unnoticed, undiscussed.”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Even 21 years later, yes.

In fact, when I hear “everything everywhere” (which has caught on like a nasty skin contagion among marketing people in the streaming and broadcast sectors over the last 5 or 10 years), it still brings back that quote in Wired.

And for me, this is the strange future that has always seemed inevitable for most of the businesses and technologies I have seen over the years: if it is good, then it will get investment and grow. If it grows, it will get cheaper and volume will go up. Then competition means it will become unsustainably cheap, until someone works out how to just give it away with something else, and suddenly it will all just be part of our expectation of that something else, and in our minds the original thing will be a mere detail in the background, if indeed we can even identify it distinctly at all.

The internet has clearly affected the rate of change of such industrialised capitalist models. The models themselves are probably much the same as they were 100 years ago, but the speed with which they move through their product life cycles is now measured in weeks and days rather than years and decades.

And so I live in fear. I live in fear that one day there won’t be debates about the nuances of a codec, or the new capability of an online video platform, or the KPIs of a CDN, or the benefits of one DRM over another, or why cellular has advantages over VSAT, etc.

It will all just do what we need it to, reliably and invisibly.

The edifice will be built; the builders will go home. The Holy Grail will be found, polished, and presented in a nice display case for the odd tourist photo. Arthur’s knights will head back to Camelot and settle down with a bag of crisps.

Our jobs will be done. And there will be nothing else to do. It will just work.

At which point, what will we all do? Will we keep innovating? Could our entire industry simply suddenly sublimate and become visible nowhere—unseen, unnoticed, and undiscussed?

Just as the recording industry was disrupted overnight, or like our close cousins in the traditional broadcast world, so too will AV1, HEVC, HLS, DASH, and indeed every emerging streaming technology eventually be superseded. In our industry’s mere two decades, we have already seen MP3 largely replaced by AAC; we have seen RTP, RTMP, MMS, and others arrive, dominate, sublimate, and then be superseded by HLS and more.

For some of us, embracing that change is all part of the fun. The mission itself is why we set out. The resource is immaterial. Sometimes we are driven by passion and supported by the armies of a Crusade, and sometimes we find ourselves making our way forward merely with a single, comical page-boy clapping coconuts to emulate horses’ hooves as we walk blindly forward.

If you do ever think it’s done and are wondering what to do with yourselves, then please set about breaking it. Then work out why it broke, fix it, and keep doing that until you can’t break it any more.

If we are truly honest with ourselves, it is the chase that keeps us interested. Were we to ever really expect to reach the end of that journey, and to one day announce “It’s done,” then we probably shouldn’t have set out in the first place!

[This article appears in the Autumn 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine European Edition as "The Art of Sublimation."]

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