December, 2000 | Something strange happened at
NAB 2000, the National Association of Broadcasters' annual
assembly of all things video, that marks a dramatic shift
in digital video. This notorious aggregation of quality
snobs turned its collective interests and envies from the
pretty pictures of HDTV that it had been admiring for the
last few years to comparably modest images of "streaming
video." Yes, broadcasters. Yes, streaming.
You've probably seen streaming Web video: It's jittery,
has bad frame rates, and looks blotchy from the artifacts.
Broadcasters can't really take that stuff seriously, can
they? They do now, and it marks a turning point for serious
video in business, education, and commerce, as well as broadcast
entertainment. Streaming has already turned the corner,
even if that doesn't mean over the Web.
Today, the noteworthy successes of streaming video are
happening over intranets. Although it's similar to Web streaming,
streaming video over networks is not typified by tiny and
clumsy imposters for video, but rather, full-frame, full-motion
MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 digital video [See Sauer's September
2000 article, "Band-Aid: Network Appliances
for MPEG Streaming," pp. 38-45Ed.] Jittery
slide shows on the Web may be what pops into most minds
when teased to think of video streaming, but it's not the
solution that's already producing revenues, nor the likely
future of streaming.
Successful digital video has always been about bandwidth.
With early non-linear editing systems, this meant pushing
hard drives and the old NuBus (on Mac) and ISA (don't remind
me! on PC) buses to move enough data to support the heavy
demands of full-motion video. In the retired pages of CD-ROM
Professional, we watched Cinepak, Indeo, and MPEG-1 video
push the limits of 1X CD-ROMs. The Web represents the smallest
pipe yet, but also offers the biggest potential.
The ultimate solution to each of those other barriers
was more bandwidthfaster hard drives, the PCI bus,
and 24X CD-ROM drivesand the Web will likely prove
the same. Today, Web streaming is hamstrung by low-bandwidth
dial-up connections, but that will clearly change. While
individual users may be impatient, DSL, cable modem, or
some other form of high-speed access to home PCs is inevitable
[See September MOVING PICTURE,
p. 56Ed.]. Whether it takes months or years, many
competing interests are anxious to make sure it does.
Why? The FCC has mandated that all domestic television
stations broadcast exclusively digital television by 2006.
While that's suppose to mean broadcast towers sending out
digital data rather than analog frequencies to home TVs,
for the transition to proceed, consumers will have to purchase
either new TV sets or converter boxes to feed existing analog
TVs. Whether or not 2006 proves realistic for such grand-scale
consumer habit-changing, change itself makes many alternatives
The computer industry, cable, and phone companies all
have a chance to become integral pieces of the entertainment
industry if high-speed Internet access yields video entertainment
over the Web. Cisco Systems (the richest company in the
world) and two-bit companies like Microsoft, Intel, and
AT&T; are all highly motivated to move the computer (or at
least something with computer smarts and connectivity) into
the living room. Simply put, streaming video may be the
key to the biggest growth opportunity each of those companies
will see for the next 30 to 40 years, and NAB 2000 was just
Meanwhile, the excitement and the bandwidth for effective
video streaming already exists over intranets, and several
business, educational, medical, and entertainment users
are now demonstrating that the technology for sending video
over IP is more than a fascination: It is money-making and
money-saving business. While the MPEG industry has been
promoting streaming for a few years, only recently have
both the available bandwidth of LANs, WANs, and satellites
and the knowledge to manage it come together.
By its real-time nature, video data can't wait for the
typical latencies of most networks (and certainly the Web),
so video packet information has to be labeled and networks
managed effectively to allow each video frame to arrive
at its destination on time. Conversely, video data can't
hoard corporate network bandwidth and prevent other types
of data from passing. Fortunately, where network managers
once resisted video as a data juggernaut that would cripple
their infrastructures, many are now asking "how?"
Admittedly, for broadcasters planning several years in
advance, the lag time for high bandwidth to homes simply
allows time for preparation for a digital future. But the
mere fact that they are already talking about it and that
should convince anyone with intranet bandwidth and a need
to communicate that now is the time to take the plunge.
Video has always promised to be a killer communications
app and NAB 2000, combined with today's real world successes,
suggests that the promised time may have arrived.
While the government has TV stations trudging forward
to digital televisionE.T.A. 2006 or some future date
unknownstreaming video is already proving successful
for businesses and educational organizations. And if NAB
2001 is anything like NAB 2000, those early electronic media
streaming pioneers will be looking like visionaries
wherever the Web stream finds them.