Jeff Pulver's Voice on the Net (VON) conference celebrated its tenth anniversary in Boston last month. We haven't been to VON in a few years, and were impressed by the size of the show floor.
But Voice over IP (VoIP) is no longer the big news. This year's headline was the rapid emergence of video over IP, highlighted by a parallel "Video on the Net" conference.
Online Video Is Not IPTV
In his opening talk, Jeff touched on some topics that mirror our own views.
It is this latter phenomenon which Jeff believes is the next big thing. Jeff sounded a warning note when he said that video on the net is so disruptive that Hollywood will go after it in a much bigger way than the telcos initially tried to forestall IP Voice.
AOL: The Happiness Business
Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of AOL was the first keynote speaker. When he talked about The Seven Virtues of Web 2.0 ( ted.aol.com/index.php?id=370 ), his talk seemed more like a "new age" meeting than a VON keynote. For example:
Leonsis reiterated the idea that Internet video is critical and said AOL is acting accordingly. Much of his theme centered around the notion that Web 2.0 is about "taking things that you need and enhancing them into things you love". "The goal is to take something from the physical world and make it better, cheaper, easier, more convenient and more fun online." Video is a key part of this transformation.
Leonsis made a big point of the importance of "marketing to algorithms," i.e., being able to collect and analyze information to make content relevant, especially since "we are living in an a la carte world". He gave a concrete example: "After seeing thousands of tire commercials, my computer told me to go get my tires changed--and I couldn't go fast enough to spend $4,000!"
Some specific AOL video initiatives he mentioned were the AOL video portal, In2TV and Sessions for music videos. "in2TV is the long tail in action. There are hundreds of thousands of old TV shows - we're working with Warner and other companies. We've digitized them, made them available on demand, users can search around them, with new programs going up all the time. It's free and ad supported. We believe this is what consumers were looking for: find it, share it, clip it -- and the money goes to studios and artists."
Coming this month is a user created content service called Uncut Video. AOL Search is another video enhanced application, currently in limited beta testing; it combines Google text results on the left side of a page with relevant multimedia results on the right.
AOL has teamed with Intel to launch AOL Video service on PCs with Intel VIIV technology. The service includes movies, TV shows, music and sports videos, plus the ability to search for videos from the Web--and can be viewed on any large-screen TV. "We're bringing Internet video into the living room. It's got a 10 foot user interface designed by AOL in partnership with Intel. CompUSA is really blowing this out. It will be announced next week -- you saw it here first."
Leonsis says online video is happening now because the bandwidth, audience, and a real business model to support it all exist. He believes the business model is changing from a subscription model to more of an ad-supported one -- and that is very visible on AOL's Web site.
Leonsis closed his talk much as he opened it: "Our job is to make consumers happy. What works in your personal life transfers very well as you develop new products. The more people you have in your buddy list, the happier you'll be."
The Future of Television
At first blush, a session called "The Future of Television" might seem pretty presumptuous. On the other hand, the first speaker, Jeremy Allaire, was at the forefront of recognizing and acting on how the power of the Internet could be used to transform distribution and consumption of media. Allaire founded Brightcove in 2004 to provide video content owners the ability to build Internet TV businesses by publishing and distributing video and rich media directly to consumers.
Selected by Ad Age as one of the "10 of the Best Marketers in the Business", Allaire spoke about the various models by which media distribution is funded. These include pay media, free (ad supported) content, digital media stores, subscriptions and mixed mode combinations.
The big topic of this year has been consumer generated media. Brightcove has created a mechanism which allows websites and media owners to tap their value by creating and serving customized "broadband channels" and launching campaigns around topics, events or experiences.
In looking at the economic models for physical world media, Allaire has concluded that Internet TV needs affiliate and syndication models. Seeing this as an opportunity, Brightcove has developed syndication tools for creators and content owners through multiple approaches, including destination portals, social networks and "Web affiliate networks".
Much of what exists in the physical world, Allaire believes, can be relevant to the Internet TV world, but everyone is at the start of a learning curve on how this will evolve.
Caroline Little, Publisher and CEO of Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive, spoke next, providing concrete examples of the blurring of online and physical media. This is the first year that video developed specifically for the Web will be one of the Emmy categories -- and her publication was nominated for one.
One of the experiments for the Post has been to supply video cameras to 50 foreign correspondents. Journalists can choose the best platform for storytelling, whether more traditional video or simple content from direct contact with people and situations. As the media boundaries blur, some of this Web quality video is now being incorporated into traditional TV reporting.
Video From Everyone, Everywhere
Whether the subject was new sources of video content, new methods of publishing, syndicating, distributing, searching or aggregating video (or combinations of these), there were companies on hand to talk about how they are approaching it. Here are a few.
Pixpo CEO Ron Stevens described his video self-publishing start-up as a "personal broadcasting company." He showed an example of a furniture store owner showcasing his furniture and described other small-business oriented scenarios. One message was that user generated content is more than "The Zany Professor" on YouTube; it can also serve serious business functions.
ClipSyndicate is a new technology platform and business venture that enables broadcasters and other video content producers to generate new revenue and extend their brand into the "long tail" of the Internet. They syndicate video clips to thousands of vertical web sites looking for specific content of interest for their end-users. Their partners include The Associated Press, Bloomberg and Clear Channel Television. Participating Web sites share in any advertising revenue from clips served from their site.
With so many sources of online video, Dabble founder Mary Hubble set out to create a place where users could find and collect videos. Dabble does this by recording metadata, such as where the videos are located, who made it, what it's about, etc.
Motionbox is another company that helps you "find where the good stuff is", but in a different way. It works by "deep tagging" which allows users to tag favorite parts of a video so that they and others can jump directly to those parts. Motionbox can be used both for both user and commercially generated content.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) content distribution has been a hot topic and several speakers talked about their tools and services. Bram Cohen of BitTorrent says he is developing a tool to facilitate publishing coming out soon. BitTorrent is said to be the single biggest user of Internet bandwidth, so we'll be watching to see whether his next creation has the same kind of impact.
Dmitri Shapiro, Veoh's CEO, described his company's system for distributing television and video content as a way to provide "broadcast of full screen, long-form, hi-res, branded video."
Yahoo! Video was one of a number of represented companies which aggregate user generated video online. One of their current promotions to encourage users to submit videos is a partnership with Frito Lay, inviting people to submit their own ads for Doritos. A submission will be chosen to air during Super Bowl 2007. This will be one more example of blurring content between the online and the commercial television worlds.
In discussing user generated content and its aggregation, the story wouldn't be complete without a mention of YouTube. Google certainly thinks it holds promise--they just agreed to acquire YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock.
Comscore Media Metrix statistics give us a glimpse into the popularity of online video. Their July, 2006 data indicate that 106.5 million unique users, or about three out of five of all Internet users, streamed video on the web, with a total of 7.2 billion video streams, averaging 67.4 streams per streamer. On average, the typical viewer streamed two videos per day.
One session covered advertising with online video. Speakers talked about "preroll ads" and "postroll ads" (video ads that run before and after user-selected video clips). Several observed that the traditional 30-second ad doesn't work very well before a 3-minute video clip--people get mad at the advertiser.
Observing how hard it is to change long-standing habits, Warren Schlichting of Comcast told a story "about going to talk with Mel Karmazin about new platforms. He said 'I'm going to put my head down on the table and when I look up I want all of you to be gone.' Video guys have dollars but don't have creative people to think about how to make a five-second shot."
NeuLion: Only For Niches?
Is online video a threat to traditional subscription video providers? Chris Wagner, EVP Strategy and Co-Founder of NeuLion believes that his company can increasingly take cable and satellite out of the TV delivery loop. His service, called NeuLion iPTV, "delivers high quality video to your home or business using your existing high-speed Internet connection."
NeuLion delivers video to your TV, without a PC. It provides what looks like a set-top box--although its yellow color is hardly traditional. The box is connected to a broadband source and to the TV set. The service is not limited to a subscriber's home--they can take the box and view their content wherever they have a broadband connection.
NeuLion sells to businesses which aggregate content directed at specific niches; examples include content in Chinese, Persian, African, and Filipino, as well as affinity groups like faith-based networks. These businesses find both the content and the target audience and NeuLion takes care of encoding, storage, streaming, delivery, billing and customer service. They share revenues with their partners and co-brand the service.
KylinTV is one of NeuLion's current partners. KylinTV offers 24 linear broadcast channels and targets the 3 million Chinese-speaking households in the US. Today they have 10,000 subscribers in North America, each paying $25 per month for the service. We didn't learn whether these subscribers are using the service in addition to, or instead of their current video service, although we suspect there is some of each.
Chuck Dolan, Chairman of Cablevision--which provides cable TV service in portions of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut--is one of NeuLion's investors. It looks like Dolan is hedging his bets.
On2 Technologies: A Sidebar on Video Codecs
Why choose proprietary--rather than standards-based--video codecs? That was what we wanted to know once we learned that AOL, Brightcove, iFilm, Vividas and Skype (among others) all choose to use the video codec from On2 Technologies rather than H.264.
To answer that question we met with Bill Joll, President and CEO of On2. Bill told us that their codec is especially good at low speeds, which fits the bandwidth many consumers have available. He said they have a more efficient algorithm--and because the "group of pictures" (GOP) is much shorter, it is more resilient to packet loss.
Another reason is economics. Joll said On2's codec costs less than H.264, and said the licensing fee structure for H.264 involves the complexity of two different organizations. H.264 typically goes into hardware, and its cost is buried in the hardware cost. On2's codec is typically included in a software client which is downloaded for free.
Another On2 strong point is that it has different codecs for large screens, small screens and interactive two-way communications; each of these impose very different requirements.
Macromedia gave On2 a vote of confidence in the summer of 2005 when it unveiled its Flash 8 software with an emphasis on video capabilities. The Macromedia software was powered by the On2 Technologies' VP6. Subsequently, Macromedia's purchase by Adobe was completed and the Flash technology has become even more widely adopted.
Fervor, Excitement, Newness, Promise -- and Chaos
The Video on the Net show covered a wide breadth of material, including topics such as Digital Rights Management and place shifting. It felt like voice over IP in the early days of VON: full of fervor, excitement, newness, promise -- and chaos.
Where online video will go, and what will endure in the longer term, remain to be seen.
Check out this podcast of Jeff Pulver and Ted Leonsis talking about the show and online video ( podcasts.pulvermedia.com/blog/archives/2006/09/jeff_pulver_ted.html ).
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