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Online Autobahn Promises to Sharpen Net Video

A new product from Swarmcast monitors data flow to optimize video quality.

With network television shows widely available online, and with YouTube showing presidential debates, the Web is undeniably a video medium at last.

A better view: Clicking on the green, striped icon launches Autobahn HD for Flash, a new tool from Swarmcast that could help improve the quality of online video.

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.

When the viewer then attempts to watch an Autobahn-enabled video, the software connects simultaneously to a few copies of the file at once, downloading pieces from several different networks and recombining them on the fly into the streaming video.

This kind of file “swarming” is familiar from peer-to-peer technologies such as Gnutella and Bittorrent, and the more copyright-friendly services like Akamai’s Red Swoosh and VeriSign’s Kontiki. But unlike those services, the Autobahn software does not rely on users to cache and upload data to other viewers.

Swarmcast calls the second and newer component of Autobahn HD adaptive bit-rate streaming. Using this, a publisher would encode several different versions of a video file, at different standards of quality. Software on the viewer’s computer would monitor the local connection, and then select the highest-quality version possible to be streamed.

This feature gives the video stream the ability to adapt as network conditions change. An Autobahn stream might start out at only middling quality, with the picture sharpening as the connection proves to be stable. If something later interferes with the connection, such as another user taking up network resources, the software could quickly readjust to a lower-quality stream.

This aspect in particular helps mimic the instant-on aspect of television, McQuivey notes. A mid-quality stream can start almost instantly, and then improve over the next few seconds, while an unbroken high-quality stream often requires a longer wait before beginning.

None of this guarantees perfect video quality, of course. Swarmcast, like its closest rivals, offers viewers the ability to use connections efficiently. If network conditions are poor, some buffering might still occur, or images might be highly pixelated.

The company is releasing the source code for its Flash player software for free online, so people can build their own customized interfaces or add components such as an ad-insertion tool. For a limited time, the company is offering free content hosting on its network, hoping to convince potential customers of the benefits of its multiple-network swarming service.

For now, the prospect is drawing interest–but many video companies are already looking elsewhere for quality improvements. Technology executives expect widespread adoption of the H.264 compression technology (the same one used by Apple’s iTunes) in a new version of Adobe’s Flash next year, and they say that it’s likely to offer more-substantial and wide-ranging improvements to the online-viewing experience.

In broad strokes, H.264 (also known as MPEG 4 video, or AVC) is the most recent of the video compression technologies approved by the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) standards body. As implemented in Flash, it relies more heavily than its predecessors on hardware instead of on software to decode the video, and it offers considerably clearer pictures at low bit rates than do most older technologies.

“H.264 is the most promising thing on the horizon,” says Joseph Papa, vice president of engineering for Veoh Networks, a popular Flash-based video-publishing site based in Los Angeles. “Technologies like Swarmcast’s are incremental improvements. They might offer a slight increase based on network conditions, but I wouldn’t describe them as game changing.”

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