Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Workflow SNAFU - Akamai HD Network

[Updates (4): first HD, then "HD quality" and then silence. The stages of grief (denial, anger, etc) were all at play, but we made it to resolution and acceptance thanks to a key player within Akamai and a dedicated third-party vendor. Details below the original post. Issue resolved.]

For such a simple press conference, there certainly are a number of unanswered questions.  I like reporting the news, but every so often a claim is made ("first ever, only, etc") that has to be challenged.

An article I wrote on Tuesday, September 29, for includes a link to an on-demand version of an Akamai press conference that had been streamed live that day (the on-demand version had a much cleaner playback quality than the actual live playback, which can be seen in the screenshot posted here).

Akamai was announcing their Akamai HD Network, hosted by Paul Sagan, CEO, and Tom Leighton, Co-founder and Chief Scientist. I have nothing against Akamai in particular, but unfortunately some of the claims made can't be substantiated.

One in particular struck me as key to the whole press conference. Leighton claimed (from 10 minutes 35 seconds to 10 minutes 58 seconds in the on-demand version)

 "Today there's [sic] 50 million homes that have connected gaming consoles - or other devices - that capable of displaying HD video, of getting it and displaying it into the home. Also, there's [sic] 45 million iPhones out there today capable of displaying HD video."

Let's take a look at the facts:

a). No one else has ever claimed that the 1st gen iPhone or even the iPhone 3G is capable of HD playback, which is the only way to get to the 45 million iPhone number.

b) Even the claims that the iPhone 3GS is capable of displaying HD content are conjecture, as Apple does not allow HD playback on the iPhone 3GS (even 480p content can't be played back).

c) While everyone is doing "higher definition" for live streams to desktop Flash and Silverlight players, many are doing HTTP streams, and a few are doing true HD (480, 720, 1080i/p) to these same players, there are a limited number of companies doing true HD live streams via HTTP, which is where Akamai wants to tell its story. None are doing it to the iPhone, however.

The reason I say it is key to the whole press conference is this: if all Akamai is claiming is "higher definition" as its term for HD, there's no story here, since others are doing it. If they're claiming HD for the iPhone, there's a story here but not one they can support.

When I heard that claim about the 45 million HD-capable iPhones, I immediately posted a question on the webcast, which was not read during the live event; I've also written twice to the PR contact, who was helpful with a question about one of the speaker's names, but has also been silent on the misstatement by Leighton.

Oh, and I can't even get the on-demand version of the press conference to play on my iPhone 3GS, as the debugger tags a ton of issues with the page in Safari, although I was able to get it to play on another iPhone 3GS.

[Update, Sep 30, 2pm Eastern: Akamai's press contact has sent a copy of a document called "Akamai HD for iPhone Encoding Best Practices" that states, on page 5, the best practice is to encode at  a maximum size of 400x224 and a maximum bit rate of 864 kbps. Which one of these settings qualifies as HD content? You're right if you answered "none of them" as content encoded at this rate / size would be considered unacceptable on the desktop, and further undermines Akamai's claim of its HD network providing content owners with the ability to encode once and play out to multiple platforms / players]

[Update 2, Sep 30, 5pm Eastern: Akamai is now claiming that their clients send HD 'quality' to the iPhone, with the 'quality' being, well, the qualifier. Akamai has promised to send a direct link to an HD stream, but as of yet they have not been able to produce one. Did some more digging on Mr. Leighton's quoted 45 million iPhones and I now can say with certainty that number is also wrong; the iPhone 3GS is the only one capable of above standard-definition playback, and that feature is not even supported by Apple (see main post). There are less than 5 million of these 3GS units in the market, so Mr. Leighton is off by 40 million units. Another data point: the total number of all iPhone sold to date, as of September 30, 2009, according to consensus is less than 33 million, which means more than 85% of all iPhones are either 3G or first generation, which aren't capable of even playing standard-defiinition content at 640x480, let alone aspiring to play HD content at the lowest HD standard of 480p  that the 3GS might be able to play one day if Apple allows it (which they currently do not).]

[Update 3, Sep 30, 8pm Eastern: Akamai is now claiming that Tom Leighton meant to include all the iPod touch units when he said 45 million iPhones could play HD content. I was being generous, giving Akamai the benefit of the doubt about the 5 million iPhone 3GS units in the main blog post. I should have said it more plainly: exactly ZERO iPhone or iPod units on the market today are capable of displaying HD content. Akamai then changed course and claimed that its streamed content is considered HD when it starts from an HD source!  

I've heard this before: I did a previous article interview where the CDN client told me on the call they were streaming in HD; when I questioned that, the CDN client said "well, we're editing in HD on Final Cut" at which point the CDN representative interrupted and clarified. Like Akamai, they were starting with an HD source, and were claiming HD delivery . Like Akamai, they were streaming to an iPhone. Unlike Akamai, they admitted, when asked about the claim, that interviewee had misspoken. End of story, no mention in the article, other than to say it was edited in HD, but delivered in something lower than HD.

Akamai, on the other hand, says that as long as it's above 700 kbps and starts as an HD source, it can be considered HD. So the house of cards of the iPhone claims in the rollout of the Akamai HD Network rests on HD 'quality' that's below that of today's average standard-definition stream.

To make sure I'd not been projecting on to yesterday's webcast press call a minutia about the HD-capable iPhones, I listened again to Paul Sagan's introduction to the whole webcast. He stated in his prepared remarks: "The era of HD broadband is here. Producers and distributors are starting to offer the highest quality video to their audiences over the Internet. Internet video  that matches the television quality consumers are used to watching in their living rooms."

It certainly sounds good, much better than "We take an HD stream and compress the bejesus out of it, and deliver it to you at lower quality than the old standard-definition television that became obsolete earlier this year."]

[Update 4, Oct 16, 2pm Greenwich (London): Akamai's Suzanne Johnson, who will be appearing on my panel at Streaming Media Europe 2009 later today, has confirmed that a more accurate version of Tom Leighton's "45 million iPhones capable of playing HD content" statement should have been stated as this:

"By year's end, as part of the Akamai HD Network, up to 45 million iPhones and iPod touches will be capable of displaying high-quality video encoded from HD source content."

She also stated that Akamai understand that "the iPhone does not display true HD by definition but can offer consumers an HD-like high quality video experience that complements what they get on TV."

Issue resolved.]

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