As senior vice president of multimedia and distribution at MLB Advanced Media, Joe Inzerillo has played a key role in MLB’s leap to the forefront of the live-streaming-video landscape. The league’s MLB.tv platform has consistently stayed ahead of the curve in the rapidly changing world of live sports streaming, and several other leagues have looked to model their online video platforms after that of MLB.
MLBAM’s work extends beyond baseball, however. MLB’s digital arm also contracts out its services to high-profile clients like ESPN (ESPN3.com), CBS Sports (March Madness On Demand), YES Network (Yankees live streaming), and formerly Major League Soccer (a six-year partnership ended in 2009).
At last week’s Streaming Media East show, Inzerillo participated in a panel titled Understanding Adaptive Bitrate Technology and HTTP Video Delivery and provided some key insights into the current state of live streaming video and his expectations for the future.
Advantages of Adaptive Bitrate
Adaptive-bitrate encoding methods are quickly gaining traction in the streaming industry. Essentially, adaptive bitrate does exactly what the name implies: it enables content to be shifted or manipulated in real time and adjusts to the available bandwidth and screen-rendering capabilities so that the viewer gets the best possible experience based on that stream of data.
“We see several advantages [in adaptive streaming],” said Inzerillo. “We see 40%-100% more bandwidth on the same connection. For us, we want the highest possible video quality delivered to the end user, so that’s a big deal. It’s not just the fact that the bitrates adapt; it’s the notion that taking a stream and breaking it into individual file blocks allows people to get [a more quality experience].
“[Adaptive bitrate] is something that people are really fixated on,” he continued. “As opposed to disconnecting and reconnecting you if you get into trouble with your stream, it gives you the ability to just sort of swim around and find a happy medium of what you can actually consume in a reliable way.”
HTML5 and the a Standards-Based Approach
Inzerillo has long been a proponent of HTML5 and its benefits for streaming video. HTML5 is the latest proposed version of the language used to construct Web pages. Proponents of the specification, including Apple and Google, argue that it will allow programmers to add media to a Website with just a few lines of code and eliminate proprietary plug-in–based video players like Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. This has created a heated debate in recent weeks between Adobe and Apple, which has refused to allow Flash on its iPad devices.
“We’re big fans of the HTML5, Apple-supported approach, and I think there’s a lot of sensibility there,” said Inzerillo. “We’ve really drawn a hard line on using HTML5-style encapsulation, and, therefore, we can get to all these different platforms. Economically, it’s favorable to us because I don’t really care if you’re watching on an iPad or a Roku box; it’s the same content and the same actual block.”
The strongest argument in favor of HTML5 involves its potential as a standard for displaying and streaming video online. Still in its early stages, the spec will enable audio and video to play natively in the browser without proprietary plug-ins. Therefore, content producers like MLBAM would no longer have to cater their video specifically to each device.
“I encourage all the product managers out there to remember this: it doesn’t necessarily matter which is better [Adobe Flash or HTML5]; it doesn’t matter if you’re right or if there even is an empirical right,” he said. “What does matter is that the economics of this make sense for everyone in the room. We need to have a converged standard. … We’re a fan of Apple’s approach because Apple said they were going to put it in standards committee. That’s the reason that we like it.”
Inzerillo is also a staunch advocate of a standardized codec for online streaming. “We as an industry need to show some backbone and demand that this stuff is done in a standard way. Maybe MPEG-2 is better, maybe MPEG-4 fragment is better, maybe it’s not. The bottom line is that it can’t be proprietary. Any company [using proprietary] encapsulation is directly eating into the pocketbooks of us as content owners … and retarding the growth of the industry.”
Adobe and Flash
The growing bad blood between Adobe and Apple has caused many in the industry to take sides. Inzerillo stopped short of “taking a side” but emphasized the need for a non-proprietary standard for video.
“My biggest problem is, whatever comes next has to be a standard,” he said. “We can’t get back into this ‘is it Flash or Quicktime or Windows Media or whatever?’ If the TV industry had done that, there wouldn’t be a TV industry.”
Though insisting that a standard must be established in order to move forward, he sees HTML5 as a potential opportunity for Adobe. “My greatest hope is that Adobe will continue to make the unbelievable production tools that they do, except make them output formats that are standard. I would love to see that, and I think it would be a great move on Adobe’s part, especially because there are not a lot of HTML5 tools out there yet. I think Adobe is poised to make the best HTML5 tools out there, and I encourage them to do so.”
Adaptive Bitrate for Mobile Devices
The use of adaptive-bitrate methods has grown with the increased use of mobile devices as video screens. The ability to adjust to the available bandwidth depending on a mobile device’s wireless signal is integral to the mobile video-streaming experience.
“If you don’t have adaptive bitrate on mobile for a stream, you don’t really have an offering,” said Inzerillo. “At this point in time, with just the sheer amount of mobile devices, we’re all competing for bandwidth, so your bandwidth is going to go up and down. If you can’t go with flow and adapt in times of feast, you’re going to get disconnected.”
No Live MLB Streaming on the Android
Although Inzerillo and company have gone head-long into live streaming for the iPhone and iPad, MLBAM has yet to develop video-centric capabilities for Google’s Android.
“For us, the problem with Android is not just that it’s different; it’s that it’s from 1992 as far as streaming technology goes,” said Inzerillo. “The problem right now is that the whole notion of Android relies on this community to mature, and, as of yet, that community hasn’t really coalesced to take on the charge of getting the video up to snuff. I think [Google] is aware that it’s going to mature, but it’s just not there yet.”
Currently, the MLB At Bat app for Android includes live streaming audio and highlights but does not feature live-streaming video. Inzerillo said this will be the case until the Android develops into a viable video outlet.
“We have game-day audio and highlight clips that we have to transcode specifically for that device, but we back off the live video because it just does not have a meaningful platform for live video at this point in time,” he said. “We are trying to get that community going and get an HTML5-encapsulated stream to play on [the Android], and we’re starting to have some pretty good success with it. Hopefully, you’re going to see something from us on Android that’s going to be a live-video spec, but you’re not going to see it until it’s something that conforms with what’s already out there.”