Jul 30, 2006

Streaming Media: All You Need To Know

Many of you have been asking about what format of streaming media to use on your Website. So I went to the expert, Areos, and asked him to put something together. If you still have further questions please feel free to let us know.

Currently, there are 4 file formats that dominate Video and Audio Streaming on the web: Windows Media 9, Real Media 9, QuickTime 6, and Flash Streaming Media - versions 7 and 8. The stronger format continues to be Windows Media, with over 70% of all streaming hits across delivery servers on CDN's (Content Delivery Networks). Windows Media gained stronger leadership position since version 9 (Corona) was released. The key improvements offered with that version were the image quality vs. the bit-rate needed for great sharpness and motion. Since then, Real Media has also launched version 9, which most experts find comparable to Windows, but the compatibility and convenience offered to most users by Microsoft (as all PC's come with Windows Media installed) has kept the WM9 as the top format in the industry.

There's no doubt that QuickTime and Flash are great formats to reach audiences across different platforms (like Mac's), or different browsers (i.e. Mozilla), but when attempting to reach the most users possible, Windows is still the best choice if you plan to deliver content in 1 format only. While QuickTime is known as the most "downloaded" format, it's important to understand fact vs. speculation: users may be downloading QT because they are installing iTunes, or simply installing the QuickTime codec to watch a one-time QuickTime file. It doesn't necessarily mean they will choose QT as the primary format for viewing most of their media.

QuickTime is the most successful codec with Mac users, and provides perhaps the best video quality when encoded at high bit-rates. It's the known format chosen for movie trailers, and probably offers more interactive applications than Windows and Real Media combined - like 360 degree virtual tours, or product multi-view. QuickTime is a format for video enthusiasts, which are often disappointed with other codec's once they "get hooked" on QT. The thing to remember is QT is not the default player in most computers sold, and most people will not know how to change these preferences. We're talking about most people (like Mom, Grandpa, or Neighbor), not you: if you're reading this, you probably know more about computers than the average person…

Real is an excellent choice if you have a loyal audience that is familiar with the format. For example, the NFL had utilized Real Media as the primary format for the past 3 and half years. If you are a football fan, you most likely have Real installed and that is probably your format for most files - including mp3. But most users, when given the choice, will prefer to watch a clip with a player that's already installed and that recognizes the file automatically: in most cases, Windows Media will pop right up and start playing. But even if you see this as some type of "media high-jacking", a lot people actually like that…

Flash is "the new video player on the block". As Adobe strongly advertises, it reaches over 97% of browsers, and it features more interactive and compelling applications than any other format. That's all true. But there's 1 thing they omit to tell you: Flash takes longer to encode, and it takes more bandwidth to deliver the same quality seen on all other 3 formats - which translates to more cost in bandwidth to you. If you want to create interactive applications around your video, there's no better choice. But if you need to crank content quickly, and deliver it efficiently cost wise, Flash should be your last option. The newest version of Flash has improved some of the issues observed in the first version, which was seen by experts as premature, or at least "not all that" advertised by Macromedia in months following launch. Proof is the abandonment of important sites that adopted the technology and quickly went back to Windows:,,, etc. Currently, one of Flash's strongest partners is Google. We recommend that you consider Flash for its add-on capabilities, but not simply because it's the new thing to do.

Ultimately, what determines the best format for your media is your target audience, your budget, and the timeliness in by which you must deliver content. We hope you also consider industry trends over the last 2 years, as streaming media is rapidly changing. Most numbers and articles presented by Microsoft, Apple, Real Networks, and Adobe often omit information that's vital for the business to determine the best format to reach the most users with their specific type of media. And as you know, it's tough to learn 1 or 2 years later that you could have adopted a better format early on - which means you'll have to re-encode or get your audience used to a new format. Please try to avoid all this by speaking to the experts first, before deciding your format.

To recap, current CDN streaming hits (requests) are approximately:

  1. Windows Media: 70%
  2. Real Media: 18%
  3. QuickTime: 5%
  4. Flash Streaming Media: 4%

Remember this is for streaming - not downloads (…that's a whole different story!!!).