Jan 052011

Becoming increasingly popular are various forms of streaming media services – Last.FM has personalised radio stations I can tune into on my phone, the BBC has their iPlayer which allows me to catch up on BBC TV (or radio) programmes I’ve missed, and my film rental service even has a streaming service that allows me to watch films without being worried about discs being mailed to me. All very cool of course, and it’s even quite handy but there are a few problems that need to be solved before streaming services can beat having the real disc – compact disc for music and blueray for films.

We sometimes look at these services under the best of conditions and rarely consider how they would work under the worst of conditions.

Firstly there is the quality issue. Whilst streaming music may well approach the quality of CDs, films and other forms of video are a long way from being of the same quality of the discs – sometimes not even getting close to the quality of DVDs when Bluerays are the quality to aim for. Sure it is no big deal – the convenience of online streaming makes up for the quality to a certain extent, but it does not replace the need for quality.

Secondly, reliability is an issue. Not only does streaming media (even audio) have a tendency to stutter to the point where listening or watching becomes unbearable, but sometimes streaming services just crash through being overloaded – very frustrating when it is half-way through a film. In theory most of our network connections have more than enough bandwidth to support streaming media – at least audio. In fact my own network connection is good enough for streaming video with just the occasional stutter – maybe just once an hour – and of course the occasional stutter may well because of other activity on my network. I do after all have people visiting my “server under the stairs” for blog postings and photographs on a regular basis.

However my wireless network is sufficiently bad that even streaming audio can get very bad in the evening. Not the fault of the streaming media companies that I live in a very dense environment with lots of wireless “noise”, but it still means that I tend to avoid using wireless networking except on devices where there is no choice. And on those devices I have sometimes been forced to put them away, or switch to using 3G.

It would be helpful if media streaming companies allowed people to buffer larger amounts of the media stream to assist in this. I would not mind waiting 10 minutes for a buffer to fill up to ensure that I could watch a film all the way through without stuttering. Or indeed wait 60s for an audio stream to buffer.

On the subject of media servers crashing, it is a little hard to see what can be done about this. The obvious thing is that streaming media companies need to be very careful about the code they write (or buy) to increase reliability. Software always has bugs, but increasing the importance of bug destruction would be very wise. Less obvious is to measure how reliable the media servers are at various loads, and limit the load to the level they can support reliably.

A message saying “please wait for an available film slot” is better by far than trying to start playing a film only to have it drop out half-way through!

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