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Piecing Together Mobile Video Tech

In July, Nielsen Media Research reported “watching video on the Internet is no longer a novelty; 119 million unique viewers viewed 7.5 billion video streams in May 2008. In addition, as of Q1 2008, 91 million Americans (36 percent of all mobile phone subscribers in the U.S.) owned a video-capable phone.”

As content owners look to mobilize their video content to reach these mobile users, they’ll need to consider more than simply how many users are on 3G networks. The mobile device market is still very fragmented, with spotty 3G coverage and hundreds of different types of video-enabled phones in the market. In order to deliver quality video successfully to the broadest audience, content owners will need to tap mobile video formatting and delivery specialists to ensure that that their users have the best video viewing experience.

More Than a Pretty Interface

With the release of the iPhone 3G, it would be easy to assume that mobile video has arrived. Using applications like YouTube on the iPhone is easy and reminiscent of a desktop experience, thanks to a large screen and easy navigation. Many other standalone video portals are riding the iPhone wave by pushing out consumer video portals as both iPhone-friendly Web sites and as downloadable iPhone applications. However, even the featured video applications in the Apple App Store don’t necessarily deliver a good video experience. Videos played via apps like vSNAX buffer, freeze and cut off audio. Even on fast WiFi connections, the experience is largely broken. Users who are experimenting with YouTube or vSNAX on iPhone may quickly lose interest if the experience is sub-par.

A slick interface paired with brand name content isn’t enough to please video-craving end-users. Users will demand fast startup time, smooth video playback, and support on all phones, not just the iPhone, even though the iPhone is the benchmark for mobile Internet. This means that content owners need to consider a multitude of data networks, network hand-off conditions, various screen sizes, file formats, and device and carrier limitations.

The video delivery problem is much larger than simply the speed of the connection. Videos need to be transcoded quickly, streamed according to the real network conditions and supported on the broadest set of devices.

It would be a mistake to consider that because these video streaming applications are “free” that it’s acceptable to offer a poor video experience. Even though these free services are often supported by advertising and are included in the user’s unlimited data plan, there is still an expectation of quality. Desktop users with broadband connections always expect a great video streaming experience, and they’ll demand the same level of quality from their mobile device. Otherwise, why would they use it, and keep using it?

The following are some formatting and delivery issues to consider when preparing to expand into the exploding mobile arena.

The Task of Transcoding

Transcoders format videos for the specific device that requests a video. In anticipation of requests from hundreds of devices, content owners can pre-ingest many formats of a video. However, this is a wasteful process, as many videos are never requested and extra storage space and administration efforts are required.

A much more efficient solution is to deploy a made-for-mobile transcoder that formats the original video file on the fly. The result for the user is a much faster startup time. There is a big difference between a video that takes seven seconds to start on WiFi vs. 14 seconds. Users expect the video stream to start immediately and will quickly lose patience if they are made to wait.

Intelligent Streaming

Most streaming engines deliver video content at a constant bit rate. The risk here is that the network conditions will vary, or connection speeds will toggle from 3G to 2.5G in spotty coverage areas. The resulting obstacles of the user experience are image stuttering and issues with audio getting out of sync, freezing and buffering.

To accommodate for real-world network conditions, content owners need to use a stream controller that reacts to network feedback and modifies the bit rate to the existing network conditions. The result is smooth video playback with zero freezing, stuttering or audio loss. Users expect the video to play smoothly and continuously without stalls or skips under any network conditions.

Device Support

There are more than just iPhones in the market today. In the U.S., there are over 400 video-enabled phones in use. Content owners need to support the majority of these devices by employing a mobile video delivery specialist that supports hundreds of devices, not just a couple dozen. Users expect video to play on their video-enabled phone and are quickly soured by a failed video request.

Many mobile video delivery vendors simply use an open source tool like Apple Quicktime Darwin. Although Darwin is great for newer phones on fast connections, Darwin has some critical shortcomings; namely an inability to handle 3G to 2G hand-offs, limited device support, and slow startup time and video buffering. Darwin may be a great low-cost baseline tool for those that are experimenting with mobile, but the risk is that it’s not powerful enough to ensure that the majority of your users are having a great mobile video experience. The last thing you want to do is tarnish your brand with a broken mobile experience.

Mobile video is gaining real traction, but the true test for content owners is to create a user experience that is worthy of the video itself. Users who are experimenting with mobile video will quickly reject a poor viewing experience. Content owners need to consider that adoption of 3G and WiFi networks does not drive adoption of mobile video alone. Many users still have slower data connections and expect video to work on their phones.

In recent studies, users have voiced their concerns about battery life, image quality, download time, and freezing/stuttering. Implementing a powerful, mobile-specific formatting and delivery solution directly addresses these concerns and creates a user experience worthy of the content being delivered. When given a powerful video delivery experience, respondents were largely satisfied with the image quality, the startup time and the smoothness of the playback.

When designing a mobile video strategy, it’s not just about the iPhone. It’s not just about the speed of the data connection. It’s about the user experience.


DeWayne Nelon is CEO of Avot Media, a provider of tools for content owners to deliver their Web videos to mobile users.


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