Streaming media usage has grown exponentially over the past few years, both for entertainment purposes and as a vehicle for organizations to market, sell, and support their products and services, as well as for internal communications and training. For many such organizations, streaming video has transitioned from a “nice to have” curiosity to a mission critical technology.

At the same time, streaming media technologies have transitioned dramatically since the early years, as has the challenge of reaching the full range of target viewers. Fortunately, new third-party alternatives for distributing streaming media have emerged as well, and may offer the best option for many organizations.

As streaming media grows in importance, organizations that distribute streaming media must continually monitor and evaluate market trends to ensure that they choose the technologies that deliver the highest quality streams possible to the most relevant segments of their target viewers.

Streaming Media Technology Components
Streaming technologies like Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, and Microsoft Windows Media and Silverlight all include certain common components in their solutions. These include a player to play the media on the viewer’s computer or mobile device, a defined file format or formats that the player will play, and often a server component that offers features like digital rights management and live streaming.

All streaming technologies use compression to shrink the size of the audio and video files so they can be retrieved and played by remote viewers in real time. Common video compression technologies, also called codecs, include H.264, MPEG-4, VP6 and VP8, Windows Media Video (WMV), and MPEG-1/2, while common audio codecs include AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), Vorbis, Windows Media Audio (WMA), and MP3.

Note that codecs are typically—but not always—independent of the streaming technology that implements them. For example, the H.264/AAC combination was first adapted by Apple QuickTime, then Adobe Flash, then Microsoft Silverlight and finally on certain browsers for playback via the HTML5 video tag. In contrast, Microsoft’s Windows Media Video and Audio technologies are exclusively used by Microsoft’s Windows Media and Silverlight technologies.

Streaming Media Playback Platforms
Just because a streaming technology provider makes a technology available doesn’t mean that the various playback platforms have to support it. This became obvious with Apple’s decision not to support Flash on the iOS platform, or WebM in its Safari browser. Accordingly, the owners of the various playback platforms also control which technologies get implemented.

In the early days of streaming, the most relevant playback platforms were Windows and Macintosh computers. While Apple and Microsoft still hold tremendous leverage, computer platforms tend to be more open than mobile devices, which comprise the fastest growing segment of streaming media viewers. Because Apple owns both a very popular platform (iDevices) and operating system (iOS), it retains absolute power to control standards adapted by Apple devices. Blackberry also controls the hardware and software used by their devices, though it’s playing catch-up to Apple and other vendors in the video capable mobile market.

Other mobile influencers tend to be split between hardware vendors—like LG, Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, and HTC—and mobile operating system providers like Google (Android) and Microsoft (Windows Phone 7). In particular, Google and Microsoft have to create a mobile platform deemed as marketable by the hardware vendors that select it. This leads to interesting juxtapositions, like Google promoting WebM and HTML5 in its Chrome browser and on YouTube, while integrating Flash into its Android operating system.

Browser vendors like Microsoft (Internet Explorer), Mozilla (Firefox), Google (Chrome), Apple (Safari), and Opera (the Opera Browser) also influence which technologies are adapted. During the early days of the HTML5 debate, it was Mozilla’s steadfast refusal to integrate an H.264 player into its browser that spawned the need for a high-quality alternative, a need that was ultimately satisfied by WebM. Now, Apple’s intransigence and Microsoft’s curious half-in/half-out positioning are preventing WebM from becoming the unified HTML5 standard.