With network television shows widely available online, and with YouTube showing presidential debates, the Web is undeniably a video medium at last.
Yet picture quality remains hit-and-miss, rarely up to the standards of TV, much less of a DVD. It’s still common to encounter frustrating pauses while waiting for a video to load. As the weeks of the television writers’ strike turn into months, and viewers look to the Net to supplement their TV-watching habits, this qualitative difference is becoming increasingly evident.
A new set of software and services released last week by Minneapolis-based Swarmcast could help improve the quality of online video. Dubbed Autobahn HD for Flash, the product offers to speed often-congested video downloads and improve picture quality for many viewers.
“We’re focused on working to turn the Internet … into a truly viable alternative to cable and satellite TV,” says Swarmcast chief executive officer Justin Chapweske.
This quest for faster downloads and better audio and video online is an old one. Limited network bandwidth, whether caused by a viewer’s home wireless network or a company’s overtaxed video server, has always been a constraint on quality.
Over the years, file-compression technology has gotten better and better, fitting audio and video into ever-smaller packages while maintaining ever-better fidelity to the original. Many of the biggest leaps in Internet video quality have come this way, as when Adobe introduced better quality video into its widely used Flash technology, or when Apple launched its video store based on the powerful H.264 compression technology, both in late 2005.
Successive generations of technologists and companies have also found creative ways to network traffic and file transfers, allowing more-efficient use of whatever bandwidth is available.
Swarmcast and its chief rival, Move Networks, are both taking this approach. Falling at a creative midpoint between the big-content delivery networks like Akamai and efficient but tricky-to-implement peer-to-peer networks, each company now offers streaming services that tailor video quality to viewers’ individual network connections, pushing picture quality closer to the level of TV.
Move Networks already numbers ABC and Fox among its online clients. But analysts say that Swarmcast, which already supports Major League Baseball’s live Web broadcasts, has the potential to help turn Web video into something more like television.
“People care about quality, and that’s expensive to do if you don’t have this kind of network intelligence,” says Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey. “This is a very good medium-term solution. It’s not the same efficiency as peer to peer, but it does offer most of the same benefits.”
Swarmcast’s Autobahn HD for Flash is built around two separate components. The company has previously offered the first, a network-acceleration tool, as a consumer product that promises to improve video streamed from a few specific websites and to speed downloads from iTunes. However, this is the first time that the tool has been applied to Flash-based video.
To provide this acceleration function, Swarmcast offers to distribute customers’ video across several traditional content delivery networks, such as Akamai, CDNetworks, and Limelight. For the system to work, viewers must then download a piece of player software, which works behind the scenes as video is displayed in a Web browser.