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I Am A Spy In The House Of Love

So I tried something different this year. I took a pass on the angst and nerd drama of the WWDC ticket lottery and saved my pennies for a completely different conference, Streaming Media West. As much as I like working on media applications, I’ve long believed that I’ll be far more useful as a consultant the more I understand the content side and the problems that clients are likely to bring my way. I really like the magazine and its website, and figured I could pick up some useful knowledge both for my development work and my aspirations to do more livestreaming of my own.

tl;dr, was it worth $2,500 of my own money for ticket, hotel, and airfare? No. Not in any obvious way. But the fact that it didn’t pan out may itself provide valuable insights.

I came to Streaming Media West directly out of CocoaConf Atlanta, where I did my Fall-tour talks on Audiobus and A/V encoding, along with the last run (for now) of the Core Audio Workshop. Photo bug Solomon Klein got a pretty good picture of me teaching the Audiobus class:

Chris Adamson presenting Audiobus session at CocoaConf Atlanta

Unsubtle difference number 1. While the CocoaConfs are generally held at simple hotels convenient to airports or transit, places where the lodging costs for attendees are low, Streaming Media West was held at the $250/night Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. And they’re not kidding about the “resort” and “spa” parts. Fancy!

Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach at dusk

Unsubtle difference number 2. When was the last time you saw one of these at a conference?

Entrance to Exhibit Hall at Streaming Media WestIMG_1458

Yep, check it out: a vendor hall. Where they want to sell you stuff. For reals. They don’t have these at WWDC or CocoaConf, so I haven’t seen one in years (maybe not since JavaOne?). But honestly, not at all out of place here: after all, a lot of problems in streaming are solved by spending money on gear and services. Indeed, I really like a lot of the vendors on display, notably server-side stream software Wowza, and Telestream, who make the Wirecast production application that I’ve used for my various experimental livestreams over the last year. Tip: Telestream often has a big Black Friday sale. Last year, I got the $500 Wirecast for 30% off during this sale, and $150 off is a nice discount.

So, I’m a little out of place. Fine, I already knew that. Question is, what I can I learn here? How can I use it?

On Monday, I attended two half-day courses: one on encoding from Streaming Media’s go-to guy, Jan Ozer (check out his site, Streaming Learning Center). A lot of the conceptual stuff is the same material that I actually presented a few days earlier in my CocoaConf encoding talk, but the mid-section gets into Jan’s hard-earned data about whether H.264’s Main and High profiles are really worth an extra encode, and specific strategies about keyframing (must match or be an even divisor of the segment length for HTTP Live Streaming and other adaptive schemes, since P-frames would otherwise send a client looking into segments it never received if they’re just coming off a bitrate change), and a bits-per-pixel heuristic that accurately tells you when to stop throwing more bandwidth at your quality problems. Good stuff.

The second Monday class was from Wowza’s Chris Knowlton, and is something I really wanted to see because I’ve had cold feet about throwing down my credit card and buying Amazon EC2 time and bandwidth in order to run a trial Wowza instance and run my own livestream, free of UStream’s advertising and copyright bots. His class was fine, but didn’t fully walk through the nuts-and-bolts of setting up an account and starting a stream, so I went to his demo the next day in the exhibition hall, which answered all my questions.

IMG_1454

So, that’s good hard data to make something of when I get home. But what of the rest of the show? Well, that’s where this tale sort of diverges for me. A lot of the sessions I attended turned out to be panels, and the speakers had very different values and observations than I do. Check out the slides for CNN’s Caleb Silver’s presentation on “Truths, Half-Truths and Outright Myths About Live TV and Streaming Consumption”. Its central argument is that “regular TV is big and isn’t going away, so… TV.” This is counter to my personal experience that nobody in my house watches live TV anymore, and my wife is the only one using the DVR. My children don’t watch traditional TV at all, and mostly pick off random YouTube videos with their iPads and play games. That generation is never going to sign up for cable, and if that doesn’t bug Caleb Silver, I think it probably should. In fact, I wasn’t the only one balking at this presentation, and I tweeted one question from the crowd asking what good it does to have great ratings among seniors and another about what good traditional audience measurement even is anymore. Update: SM has a feature story summarizing this session.

In another session on over-the-top technologies (OTT), multiple panelists made the point that IP-based delivery is the future of television. Implicit, but not stated, is that cable, satellite, and broadcast therefore aren’t, and in turn they’re admitting that cable is indeed doomed to be a “dumb pipe”, and heaven knows what becomes of DirecTV or Dish in 10-20 years.

But where I find myself in deep cognitive dissonance is in the assertion that the job to be done at this time is to “oversee an orderly transition to IP-based delivery.” Yes, they said that. And by orderly, they mean “with advertising, so we all still get paid”.

(I’m kind of not looking forward to the videos coming out next week, because I asked a lot of really skeptical questions at these panels, and I think I come off like I’m from Planet Claire)

It’s crazy how much lip-service was paid to the idea that streaming media is different, and yet all the existing assumptions and business models are assumed to make sense in this new world. Mention was made of Netflix releasing all episodes of new shows like House of Cards or Orange Is The New Black at once and get binge-watched, but with no follow-up about what this means for creatives, for business, etc.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been”
—Steve Jobs

Kidding! Of course it was Wayne Gretzky! But you don’t get to use that quote anymore without evoking Steve Jobs, who famously worked it into his MacWorld 2007 keynote. Unless you’re the dude from Yahoo! who was pressed into service for the Wednesday keynote after his predecessor left the company a week before the conference. I can’t help thinking she would have been better, because Yahoo! guy led me to a series of snarky and largely uncharitable tweets. How do you talk about how different streaming is, and then boast about making a bunch of regular-format TV shows with the usual talent, like Tom Hanks voicing already-forgotten animated sci-fi or the one-joke premise Downton Arby’s.

And yes, those links are broken. I got them from Yahoo.

I didn’t meet any other software developers there (was I the only one?), and I think the folks in this industry would benefit from our experience, particularly in light of facing an up-and-coming generation that is absolutely determined to not pay for anything. When one of the OTT panelists scoffed at my assertion of the normalization of piracy among the teen and 20-year-old crowd, insisting they’d price their stuff appropriately, my inner monologue thought “yeah, that’s what we all thought about 99-cent apps, and look how that worked out.”

There was one crack I heard on one of the panels about “our friends in Northern California”, and that may be the key I need to make sense of this. The people who could attend this conference were the incumbent players, the broadcasters and cablers who want to ensure their ox doesn’t get gored. As if to prove this point to me, the universe saw fit to provide me with a view of the crush at the valet as the conference adjourned. These guys weren’t going to the airport, they were going back to their nearby homes, because they’re all from LA:

IMG_1469

You can’t make it out from my impromptu stealth shot, but aside from a few practical Hondas, I counted three BMWs and a freaking Tesla.

So, I went out to Streaming Media West inspired by niche players like Crunchyroll, and Twitch.tv (who got a nice article in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, and I did see two dudes in Twitch hoodies in the courtyard), and the do-it-yourself streamers who host shows from their bedrooms and attract loyal, chatty crowds. To the people at this conference, none of that matters. But I think it does. Every hour that someone spends watching JesuOtaku laugh her way through a bad visual novel or hanging out in the chatrooms for the livestreamed podcast recordings of Accidental Tech Podcast or MacBreak Weekly is an hour not spent watching NCIS. That doesn’t mean most people, or even many people, want to spend their time this way. But habits change over the years, and are naturally shaped by the nature of the communication channel. To acknowledge that, and then to see the new screens as little more than TVs with credit card swipers (to borrow Dan Gilmor’s classic analogy), is a foolish sort of myopia.

What did I get out of this conference? Aside from a little bit of genuinely valuable business and technical information, it gave me some insight into how incumbents are coming into streaming, and how I might want to imagine their point-of-view if they come my way looking for an iOS or Roku app.

But it also confirmed that everything interesting to me is happening out at the fringes, and that’s where I need to be.

Comments (3)

  1. Now that I think of it, CodeMash has vendor/sponsor tables (if not an exhibition hall per se), but most of the ones I can remember seeing were actually doing recruiting of attendees, like Netflix and Amazon (who would put their too-cute trick question of the day on a whiteboard to screen would-be applicants)

  2. Also, apropos of streaming, on Friday night at CocoaConf, I co-hosted a late-night anime club with Mikey Ward and TJ Usiyan, which consisted of two episodes of Attack On Titan and one of Angel Beats! from Crunchyroll, along with some interstitials from YouTube, all streamed from my iPad. Fellow Crunchyroll subscriber Mikey and I ended up sending out some of our Crunchyroll guest passes to attendees interested in seeing more of these shows.

  3. […] here’s a good one I think they missed. Remember my blog about going to the Streaming Media West conference, and how panelists talked about ensuring an “orderly transition to IP-based […]

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