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DASHing Into an Era of Convergence

San Francisco has a largely unknown place in the history of television. Back in 1927, on Green Street in the city, Philo Farnsworth had patented a method for showing moving pictures wirelessly. As a lone inventor, he was up against RCA, Westinghouse and Marconi. Each TV broadcaster at the time required a custom TV set to receive their signals. If you wanted to watch certain channels, you had to buy a set compatible with just those channels.

Skip forward ten years. Farnsworth prevailed in a decade-long legal battle with RCA but was never able to capitalize on his remarkable inventions (of which TV was just one of more than 300 patents issued). The broadcast signals were still incompatible. Reason prevailed finally in 1941 with the establishment of the NTSC standard, which harmonized all the broadcast formats at the time. NTSC was the foundation on which America's broadcasting industry and the behomoths of ABC, CBS, and NBC were built. 

Today, with streaming media, we find ourselves back in 1927. There are three main adaptive segmented formats - Apple's HLS, Microsoft's Smooth Streaming and Adobe's Dynamic Streaming. They are 80% the same, yet 100% incompatible. To view HLS, you must have a player for that format. For HDS, another player and for SmoothHD, a third.  This fractured delivery space forces encoders, delivery networks and client players to spread their development efforts across all these formats, forgoing optimizations that could be achieved by converging around a single format.
There is now a new streaming format on the block - MPEG-DASH. Not another format you moan - won't that make things worse? Perhaps not. DASH is different. Rather than being the proprietary solution of any one company, it is an international ISO standard, compiled by the Motion Picture Experts Group (the same people who brought you MPEG2 and MP4) and ratified as ISO 23009-1. It's goal, to continue our story, is to be the NTSC of the streaming world and to foster the same growth in the video-over-IP industry we saw in the broadcast world.
Here at NAB 2012, there is a good amount of chatter about DASH. Will spoke with Andy Plesser of BeetTV about DASH - watch the video here:
The purpose of DASH, which stands for Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP, is to provide a format to simplify and converge the delivery of IP video. As it gains wider adoption over the coming years, it will improve client and network interoperability, enable content providers to spend less time and money on backend compatibility and more on compelling content, support common encryption, and allow for streaming content to adapt to network and client health. DASH demo at NAB 2012.jpg
From my perspective, one of the exciting elements of DASH is its promise of convergence - particularly in this era of hyper-connectivity. Consider the range of devices currently in use today: you have PCs, TVs, laptops, set-top boxes, game consoles, tablets and mobile phones. To deliver content features to these devices, we need to add each feature for each type of device depending on what format is supported. Multiply that by all of the members of the content ecosystem and all of the potential features, and you can imagine the impact this matrix of inefficiency has on our industry. With DASH, you have a single format that can be supported across a common ecosystem of content and services, all the way from the encoder down the chain to the end consumer. The time/cost savings it presents will inevitably translate into an industry with a deeper feature set and a steeper innovation curve.
So while it's too early to tell if DASH will succeed in its goals, we at Akamai are excited about its promise for the industry. As members of the MPEG-DASH Promoter's Group (http://dashpg.com), we'll continue to push for its broad adoption.
If you're at NAB, come see me to talk more about DASH. I'll be at the Akamai booth (#SL8124) where we'll be showing live demos (see one now if you like http://tinyurl.com/dash4you ) of how DASH works over the general Internet. Faster forward!
Will Law is Principal Architect at Akamai.