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Video Revolutions: Accidental and Intentional

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

Walter Cronkite once said that it was no miracle that men walked on the moon. The actual miracle, the news anchor believed, was that millions of people sat in their living rooms and watched it happen. Perhaps the real miracle was that television became a success at all, given all the tribulations that accompanied its upbringing – and continue today. Compared to the computer industry, where standards reign, the television industry is a mass of confusion.

Since its earliest experiments, television has captured the imagination of the public. But before it became a success, it was a legal and technological battleground. There were patent infringement lawsuits over who actually invented television. A battle over color television technology went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1950s. And even today, instead of one video format for traditional broadcast TV, the world uses three: NTSC, PAL, and SECAM.

More Rivalries Among Technologies

Three video formats seem downright rational compared to the competition among transmission technologies. Television started with over-the-air transmission, first gaining consumer popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Though pay-TV (as cable television was originally known) first came into the public consciousness in the 1960s, it had actually first became available in North America in 1948, with subscription services in 1949. Satellite transmission became possible with the first national network of satellites, launched by the Soviet Union in 1967, followed by the first North American satellite, launched by Canada, five years later.

And the plethora of choices continues even today, not only with sometimes-incompatible capabilities such as 3-D and HDTV, but also with screen technologies such as LCD and plasma.

Will the Internet Knit It All Together?

Contrast that with the computer industry, where revolutions come intentionally through commonly agreed-upon standards. Computer technology has already replaced many of the highly proprietary standards of the telephone industry with its own. So now the question becomes: will computer technology supplant television technology? 2006 saw the first online streamed video; multiple Web sites, such as YouTube, Hulu, and even Netflix, stream content that would traditionally be watched on television.

Can the Internet, and especially HTML5, eliminate the schisms that still plague television?

HTML5’s creators intended it to become the new standard way to show video online. But in an unintentional similarity to television, there has been no agreement as to which video formats it should support. Certainly, issues of decompression, image quality, and the need for a hardware decoder still need to be ironed out.

But imagine the potential for video with the computer industry and the Internet, with its devotion to standards in its DNA, creating an open distribution channel. In the same way that almost anyone can blog, all types of video producers could potentially find an audience for their content.

No matter how small the market niche, or how geographically disbursed the target audience may be, it is now possible to attract, engage and aggregate a global “community of interest” for micro-media (in contrast to mass-media) video news and entertainment.

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2 Comments.


  1. What a wonderfull new video world it would be when HTML5 could iron out the various codecs, transports and containers used for video transport nowadays.

    There are too much “de facto” standards for video encoding and transport over internet. However for the years to come they seem to stick around.

    And please keep in mind that the video tag in HTML5 can not be a magic thing solving all problems of the hardware platform the HTML5 is running on. There is way to diverged hardware out there to make one solution fit all.

    There is still a bandwidth problem in the last mile for delivering video. Development of Codecs with ever lower bitrates will continue. Unfortunately these type of Codecs are mostly CPU hungry and hence need specialized hardware.

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  2. David Deans

    Hendrik, thank you for sharing those insights.

    Agreed, video applications require adequate broadband connectivity. Here in the U.S. market the delivery (downlink) is only part of the equation. It’s not uncommon to have a broadband downlink (3Mbps+) and yet the uplink is still narrowband (~384Kbps).

    Clearly, this handicapped one-way broadband isn’t suitable for supporting interactive video collaboration applications.

    In an upcoming post I will describe how in the 21st century, where consumers become prosumers (co-creators of content), we’ll all need symmetrical connectivity to the Internet.

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