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[ NNSquad ] Apple -- and a Future of Stuttering Streams?
Apple -- and a Future of Stuttering Streams? Question: What does Steve Jobs' announcement today of a new, $99 Apple TV Internet streaming device suggest about the likely impact of such technologies on the Internet? Jobs' announced the new Apple TV unit (along with various iPod and other products) via a live video stream (that used a protocol only currently viewable mainly on Apple products). Reports of stuttering, freezes, and other problems with the live stream were widespread. The irony of streaming problems affecting the announcement of a streaming product may be a harbinger of things to come. The new Apple unit is decidedly not the first to be able to stream Internet video (including Netflix) -- most TiVos can already do that. Nor is the Apple device at $99 the least expensive such unit. Google TV will very likely be a major player in the streaming video arena as well. Televisions with integral Internet video streaming capabilities are already appearing. One way or another there's going to be a lot of streaming to big TV screens, and the implications are pretty dramatic. From a competitive standpoint, ISP subscribers will be faced with the choice of buying movies directly from their ISP Pay-Per-View systems (which won't eat data from Internet bandwidth/usage caps, when present) or using external services where unilaterally applied ISP bandwidth/usage caps do come into play. But aside from this, we really need to be thinking about the impact that a veritable explosion of relatively high-bandwidth streams may have on local Internet infrastructures. There are several points to keep in mind. Unlike devices that allow downloaded movies to be "staged" to a local disk (downloaded late at night or little by little over longer periods of time) streams are on-demand and now. Users expect to treat streams like DVR player controls and get fast responses. Streams do have some obvious pluses. They're instantly available to play. You *can* control them like a DVR. You don't waste time and bandwidth downloading entire movies to a local disk and then only watch short segments. From the standpoint of content owners, streams are great because you never have entire movies laying around on users' hard drives where they might (in theory anyway) be subject to various piracy techniques. However, an obvious implication of streams -- since they are real-time in nature -- is that you need sufficient Internet capacity to supply simultaneous streams for all current viewers at the same time. Even with Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) handling the long-haul aspects, the possible saturation of local Internet access networks, often already strained during "prime time" (at various levels of the network infrastructures) is of significant concern. Think about Friday and Saturday movie nights, for example. Another issue -- we can expect the bandwidth required by individual streams to be growing by leaps and bounds. Most Internet subscribers' typical usage consists of a lot of Web browsing -- involving bursts of inbound data but not continuous flows -- and occasional viewing of streaming audio and video. There's going to be a major difference between watching YouTube videos on a relatively small PC display, vs. feeding streaming movies to a big screen TV. Viewers of the latter are going to be demanding very high quality streams -- pixelation and artifacts easy to ignore on a little screen stand out like gangbusters on much larger displays. Higher quality streams means higher data rates, and we have to multiply that by every affected user trying to watch streams at the same moment. The widespread deployment of big screen TV Internet video streaming devices, without sufficient local bandwidth to handle them properly, could turn into a support nightmare for everyone concerned. Customers who have just paid $4.99 (or whatever) to view a streaming movie on their new giant screen LCD, aren't going to be terribly tolerant of stuttering or pixelated video, and are likely to strike out at everyone involved: ISPs, device manufacturers, Internet video service providers, and probably anyone else unfortunate enough to be within shouting range. Whether these streaming devices are viewed as successes or failures will hinge to an enormous degree not only on their own features per se, but on Internet access bandwidth capabilities during the busiest times of the day and evening. Whether or not U.S. Internet users will end up on the short end of these bandwidth-related issues -- as they seem to be for so many other Internet local access matters compared with much of the world -- remains to be seen. --Lauren-- Lauren Weinstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) http://www.vortex.com/lauren Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 Co-Founder, PFIR (People For Internet Responsibility): http://www.pfir.org Co-Founder, NNSquad (Network Neutrality Squad): http://www.nnsquad.org Founder, GCTIP (Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance): http://www.gctip.org Founder, PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein Google Buzz: http://bit.ly/lauren-buzz