When you are looking at streaming technology options for your company, don’t forget that Microsoft and RealNetworks are not your only choices. QuickTime is still a player in the space, and as we discussed in last week’s edition of the Roundtable, MPEG is gathering support to become the standard for streaming audio and video on the Internet. However, there’s another option quietly lurking out there that intertwines itself with that good old Internet standard, Java, to completely remove the format/viewer selection problem from your streaming equation. At the Las Vegas-based technical center of a company called helloNetwork, programmers and technicians are feeding audio and video to thousands of Web users who don’t even have a media player installed on their PCs.
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Sidestep the media player issue and open the door to other devices
The streaming technology that helloNetwork has developed doesn’t require users to have either Microsoft’s or RealNetworks’ media player installed because the content is played by Java-based code, activated directly by users’ Web browsers. As long as users have Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 or Netscape Navigator 4.08, or a later version of either program, the video content plays right in their browser window.
“Java-based streaming media solutions free the user from needing up-to-date, complex, and large configurable players,” explains Carlos Fernandez-Touzon, helloNetwork’s director of technical business development. “This results in far greater audience reach than the traditional streaming providers.”
The helloNetwork technology uses a proprietary format called Stream Bean Media (SBM). Though the format is proprietary, Fernandez-Touzon says that helloNetwork tries to be “as open and extensible as possible” with all aspects of its technology. As a result, he says, the technology not only works on all Java-enabled PCs but also lends itself to some applications involving alternative devices such as cell phones, PDAs, and set-top boxes.
Streaming applications offered by helloNetwork
The helloNetwork technology lends itself to most streaming media applications, and the company offers complete products designed to serve many of them. Its helloLive product is designed to make Webcasting a meeting or presentation ultimately simple. The product includes encoding software that you install on a 500-MHz Pentium III or higher, which must be equipped with a video camera and video-capture card, as well as an Internet connection. That machine captures and encodes the video and feeds the compressed stream over the Internet into the helloNetwork servers, which in turn stream the video out to users. According to Fernandez-Touzon, a live meeting targeted to 200 Web “attendees” can cost as little as $600, assuming you can provide your own cameras and required hardware.
The company also provides encoding and hosting services for archived streams. And if you want to go all out for an important Webcast, they offer full production services with a team who will take care of every detail, from preevent marketing to camera operation and encoding. You can view samples of their work, including concerts by Joe Walsh and Kenny Loggins, at the helloLiveEvents demo page.
Another turnkey solution produced by helloNetwork is a live, online customer service package, which provides live access to your organization’s customer-support team through your Web site. The company claims the cost of such a setup can run as little as $250 per head, assuming your customer service reps have the required A/V-equipped PC and Internet connection. The company also offers products that combine software and hosting services to embed video and audio content in HTML e-mails and advertising banners.
What’s the catch?
You’re probably wondering why helloNetwork isn’t taking over the streaming media space if it offers such great technology that opens up a huge audience for its customers. Fernandez-Touzon claims that helloNetwork’s biggest challenge is a lack of familiarity in the marketplace and a perception that their product sounds too good to be true. “People tend to have the belief that if something sounds really good, it’s not going to work,” he says.
Based on my own experimentation from a viewer’s perspective, the technology seems to deliver on that side of the equation. However, like other streaming formats, helloNetwork’s requires an ISDN or broadband connection for truly high-quality video. The company touts that anyone with an Internet connection can view its video, but the truth is that video quality goes way down at lower bit rates. At bit-transmission rates designed for a 28.8-KB modem, you basically see a slide show, and at 56 KB, the stream produces pretty choppy video.
Also, some organizations might be hesitant to place all aspects of their streaming efforts in the hands of one company, which is essentially what happens if you take the easiest route to getting up and running with helloNetwork, relying on them for software, hosting, encoding, and custom development. However, if you sample their products and decide to use them extensively, you can license the server technology to host your own content. The company also offers a Software Development Kit (SDK) model you can sign up for to give your in-house developers access to all aspects of its streaming media platform, including content creation, content playback, and server-side processes. On the hosting front, Fernandez-Touzon says that helloNetwork is working “aggressively to tie into third-party content distribution networks,” such as Akamai, which could open up additional hosting options.
Overall, helloNetwork’s streaming technology is definitely worth checking out if you are looking for an easy way to integrate streaming media into your company’s Internet capabilities.
TechRepublic cofounder and Senior Contributing Editor Jeff Yocom is on a mission to help IT executives and managers leverage new media in all its forms: streaming audio, digital video, wireless—you name it. Yocom searches the virtual and real worlds for new media developments and engages TechRepublic members in illuminating discussions to keep you up to date on real-world applications of new media technologies.