Lousy Streaming

The point that most caught my fancy in this fun ranting talk (realplayer) by the always interesting Andrew Odlyzko was one of his questions to the audience, i.e. why would you want to deliver a movie faster than real time?

He uses the Socratic method quite a few times during the talk with the usual collatoral damage that he looses control of the floor. The trick to getting past that problem is to enjoy the fun of trying to answer the question even though your not there. Just ignore the other students :-).

When I walk back from the library with a DVD in hand I’m streaming that movie faster than real time. When you download an MP3 to your iPod your moving it faster than real time. When an email message is deposited into my email client it’s moving faster than it can be read or written.

His point is that much of the industry enthusiasm for streaming content is misplaced. It’s enjoyably ironic to listen to that rant on a stream embedded in RealPlayer. If your really lucky it will pause to fill it’s buffers in the middle of the part of the rant were he dismisses the argument that streaming content is amenable to property rights protection.

This section resonated with me because I’ve been thinking a lot about streaming recently. And it sent me off thinking about the very idea of a stream. I get a stream of magazines and blog feeds into my life, for example. All those lumps of text and photos laid out pages are a kind of buffering. A way of making something asynchronous rather than synchronous.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is collaborative streaming, i.e. ways to shift coordinate the broadcast of a stream across a large pool of participants. I want to do that to lower the barrier to entry for the broadcaster by raising slightly the costs placed on the audience members. I want to do that to change the nature of the cloud thru which the broadcast transits so that there is less power concentrated in a high capacity hub. Shifting, in the design space, were the the coordination, processing, and bandwidth problems are resolved out of the hub and into standards. The exchange standards then orchestrate the broadcast instead of the broadcaster or an intermediary.

My strawman for this is to use swarming peer to peer techniques. The stream broadcaster atomizes the stream and distributes the droplets across a swarm of participants. They then exchange the droplets, much in the manner of BitTorrent, to reassemble the stream. Of course nothing is very new in that design.

The swarm can also provide the other features you want in a streaming architecture. Time shifting, buffering, archiving, etc. I had fun puzzling about email lists from this point of view; might it be reasonable to shift to a model where email lists are distributed, archived, etc. via a peer to peer broadcast architecture. How would that be different from a group blog? It’s common to see the most usable archives for mailing lists maintained by the community around the list rather than by the single point where the list comes together.

Part his point in ranting about streaming (oh and I want to be clear that streaming was a very minor subplot in this talk) was how portions of the industry are caught in a set of interlocking delusions about what is important and thus what the future holds. That the fixation on streaming content has codependencies on the illustion that content is king, for example. The streaming enthusiasm is also codependent with quality of service arguements; if you going to stream content you need to get very high quality of service.

That arguement is surprisingly weak. Buffers are cheap. A lot of audience members aren’t particularly interested in watching your content on your schedule – i.e. time shifting is the norm not the exception. Dumb networks keep winning so arguments that run counter to that trend are inherently suspect.

Which got me to wondering exactly when does high quality streaming really matter? Two answers come to mind. There is the social reasons – there are things it’s hard to do outside a crowd – applause, wave your lighters, choral singing, debate. Of course of those arise from the comming together and don’t demand synchonisity. There are the options that expire. The betting window closes when the horse race starts. A PR person may want to nip a rumor in the bud sooner rather than later. The early bird catches the worm. Maybe it’s only one reason; maybe these are both a question of managing what options for action you have.

High quality streaming is a lot like colocation. You know distributed work, out sourcing, etc. Dr. Odlyzko spends some time on how “distance is dead” is another industry delusion. So maybe he’s trying to have it both ways.

(thanks to Paul for the pointer)

0 thoughts on “Lousy Streaming

  1. Andy

    I sure like NPR news streamed in real time at a bar in a random airport that has only fox news on the TVs. While I do really enjoy Fox news, sometimes I want to find out what is going on in the world than just study fascinating methods of opt-in societal control via propeganda. While a grand subject of intrest of mine, you can only take so muck you know? Now if it could be faster than real time (meaning I could know the news before it happened) that would be a heck of a thing! Though I have enough of a cassandra complex as it is.

    case sensitive codes are annoying. .. skewed font means is it blOW or bloW or blOw or blow?

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