The trouble with streaming communications begins when you try to define it. Ask 10 people, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. There is some general agreement that streaming communication is the transfer of data or video from a server to a client. But after that, the definition tends to be more vague or is configured to cover the particular need of a company or user.
“When networks first started to transfer information, everything was data,” explains Phil Hippensteel, assistant professor of information systems at the Pennsylvania State University and a technical consultant. “FTP was once considered streaming. Since then, the term has morphed and changed.”
Today, by Hippensteel’s definition, “streaming always has a web browser involved and uses a media player like Real Media, Flash, or Windows Media to broadcast the information.” He says there is a subindustry or category to this: a content delivery network (CDN) in which servers cache a media stream for a future download.
“Streaming provides instant gratification,” says Ashwin Navin, owner and co-founder of BitTorrent. “Originally, it was a downloading tool, but now you can watch videos on the internet.”
Some question whether or not content is “streamed” when the information is downloaded to the computer or another device like an iPod. According to Navin, this isn’t streaming because the general idea behind streaming is to use the browser to watch or listen to the content. He makes an exception for progressive downloads, which stream information while it is being downloaded incrementally.
Phil Kaplan, chief strategy officer of Internap, agrees. “A downloaded podcast is not streaming. Streaming is where the client software is pulling video down from a client source and is broadcast across a reliable source, like Flash.”
However, Cynthia Francis, CEO of Reality Digital, has a different take. “There is an overlap,” she says. “Some elements are shared. Vodcasts and podcasts utilize streaming.”
One point that is universally agreed upon is the way streaming media is changing not only how we entertain ourselves, but also the ways in which we communicate and the way we do business.
“Initially, all streaming was text,” says Francis. “There has been a progression on how to create a richer media environment. Video provides a different level of emotional connectivity. And now, having it on the web makes it easier for people to have a real-time dialogue.”
Streaming communication is becoming the standard for how business is being conducted today, according to Francis. “If companies aren’t using it, they are missing a way to reach out to their clients. It opens a door to two-way communication in a whole new and different way.”
If you regularly use the internet, you have likely used some version of streaming communication, says CeCe Salomon-Lee of ON24. “If you watch a news video on CNN or listen to internet radio, that’s streaming communication.” It’s more than YouTube and web conferences, she adds.
Darcy Lorincz, CEO of Origin Digital, calls it the television experience on the web. “The user has control,” he says. “Streaming communication can open the world to your message,” something that those using the web for entertainment purposes have known for years, but businesses are only now beginning to realize.
“Since the late ’90s, it was popular to put entertainment on the web,” says Lorincz, “but there was a lack of business models and it was expensive. Now the business models are starting to solidify and cost has been reduced. Bandwidth and storage are more readily available and cheaper.”
“The information plays on a screen,” says Kaplan. “It is taking a signal over the internet. It has democratized media in that the audience gets to choose what it watches, when it watches.”
The Shape of Streams
One way in which streaming communication has begun to be widely deployed in the business market is with webinars—seminars that take place via an internet browser. These can happen live or they can be made available for later broadcast. The webcast can be set up to allow some interactivity between the broadcaster and the viewers, especially in a live setting.
The two-way interaction usually consists of a data communication on one end. For example, during a web conference, the video and audio feed are coming from one location, but viewers have the opportunity to send email or instant message responses or questions. Other ways for two-way communication include polls and surveys that are conducted during the broadcast.
However, this application of streaming should not be confused with things like VoIP or WebX. “The moment you leave the internet or browser, streaming communication stops,” says Salomon-Lee.
At the same time, though, VoIP has gone through an evolution of its own, says Hippensteel. “When it was first conceived, it was meant to be communication over the internet, but it didn’t work very well.” The internet became a carrier for the calls, but they generally did not involve a browser, which is Hippensteel’s top requirement to be considered streaming. “Now,” he says, “voice over IP has come full circle, with programs like Skype.” Even so, Hippensteel voices the nearly universal thought that, even when using video, this type of communication doesn’t fall under the streaming umbrella.