The TL;DR version: In 2007, Justin.tv began simply with Justin Kan lifecasting himself from his startup’s dorm style living quarters in the Y-scraper. It didn’t take long for Justin’s audience to start directing the show. The founders were able to get the cost to deliver one hour of video down to half a penny, so Justin.tv pivoted to an open, ad-supported live streaming platform. Traffic grew immensely, aided by some users illegally simulcasting blacked out pro sports events from around the world. A boxing promoter and UFC went on the attack, while Michael Seibel, Justin.tv’s CEO, had to answer to Congress. Overall traffic declined as video game streaming traffic increased. Taking this cue, TwitchTV was spun off to create a streaming platform built exclusively for video gamers to broadcast game competitions. With the rise of mobile apps, Socialcam soon became another successful spin-off. Socialcam is a mobile video sharing app that leverages Justin.tv’s infrastructure, now with 44 million users. Not to be outdone, Justin had to go and found yet another startup. Exec is a service that helps match users with personal assistants to get specific tasks done.
As I’ve got some time on my hands since being laid off from Ustream, I thought I’d take a look at the current state of live video streaming on the web. I will concentrate on the three most popular free services, Ustream, Livestream and Justin.tv. I’ll focus on core service features, ad support and removal, social network chat integration, desktop broadcaster applications, mobile integration and revenue. I’ll also touch briefly on the 800 pound elephant in the room, YouTube.
Ustream, Livestream and Justin.tv are all similar in that anyone can broadcast full-motion live video for free on the Internet, using a Mac or PC, to millions of viewers. They’re also similar in that you can archive any broadcast for playback later, as well as embed any live broadcast or archived broadcast on to your own website. All three platforms also have interactive chat features and easy ways of sharing a live broadcast over Twitter and Facebook.
Free, If You Don’t Mind The Ads
All three streaming platforms provide free ad-based video streaming services with the ability to archive any broadcast for future viewing. This means that when a viewer watches a live broadcast, they will see pre-roll video ads, in-player bottom banner and pop-up ads, bottom text ads, banner and sidebar ads. Watching a recorded archive broadcast will also trigger similar ads. This is a primary way streaming platforms are able to offer free streaming.
Here’s the way the platforms differ. Ustream offers unlimited streaming to as many people as can you can get to tune in. There are no restrictions on broadcast length or number of viewers. Livestream also offers unlimited free streaming, though you must go through a verification process to allow more than 50 concurrent viewers and to be listed in their directory. This is a mechanism Livestream uses to limit potential piracy. Justin.tv also allows unlimited streaming and does not require any sort of verification process. Justin.tv seems to host a lot of unlicensed content, though they do respond aggressively to DMCA takedown notifications. By contrast, Livestream and Ustream take a stated zero tolerance approach to unauthorized copyrighted content and have content monitors and automated systems to implement this policy.
Paid Option, If You Do Mind the Ads
The platforms differ when it comes to broadcasting an ad-free experience. Livestream’s premium service allows you to opt out of having ads served on your content (or plug in your own ads and monetize your content). As a premium Livestream broadcaster, anyone who views your content can do so without seeing ads. Livestream charges $350 per month to broadcast ad free, for up to 3,000 viewer hours (# of viewers x average # of hours watched = viewer hours) and 1TB of archived content. You can also pay $1250/month for up to 15,000 viewer hours monthly.
Not to be outdone, Ustream just rolled out their ad-free broadcasting service. Ustream offers three tiers of service to remove ads, also based on a monthly subscription fee. Each tier includes an increasing number of viewer hours. At $99 a month, Ustream is now the cheapest option to conduct an ad-free broadcast, as long as you don’t go over 100 viewer hours. Ustream charges an overage fee of 50 cents per viewer above that, which decreases with their $499 (4,000 hours) and $999 (9,000 hours) tier plans. Ustream also offers a paid, ad-free, white label service called Watershed.
Justin.tv also allows for an ad-free viewing experience, but throws the onus on the viewer to buy a Pro account for $10 a month. Justin.tv Pro account users will see all Justin.tv broadcasts without ads. If you’re a broadcaster, you can’t pay to have your content ad-free for your viewers, such as Ustream and Livestream do.
Chat and Social Stream
All three platforms have a real time chat feature, while Ustream and Livestream also have what they call a “social stream.” The chat features on all platforms are embedded to the right of the player and are essentially modified IRC clients. On Justin.tv the chat feature can be minimized by the user. On Ustream and Livestream, the chat feature can be switched on or off by the broadcaster.
The social stream allows viewers to post status updates to social networking sites while watching a live broadcast. Ustream’s social stream is an aggregated stream of updates from Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and AIM usually appearing to the right of the video player. A user logs into any or all of their social network accounts to post an update, which embeds a short URL back to the live broadcast channel page in the update. Status updates appear in real-time as they come in.
Livestream also has a social stream, though currently they only support Facebook and Twitter. The Livestream social stream is broken out into seperate tabs for each social network, rather than aggregated into a single stream like with Ustream. Similar to Ustream, the user logs into their Facebook or Twitter account from the broadcast channel page to be able to post updates.
The social stream is quite an ingenious way of driving engagement and traffic to a broadcast. Moderately popular broadcasts can quickly go viral as viewers post updates to their networks, thereby bringing followers into a broadcast.
Desktop Broadcast Apps
A differentiator among streaming platforms is the desktop broadcaster application. Using a desktop application to live stream is generally more robust, results in better quality and offers more features than using a platform’s web based Flash broadcaster (which can often crash because, well, it’s Flash).
Ustream has Ustream Producer, a Mac and Windows based application created by Telestream, the developer behind Wirecast. Producer is actually a slimmed down, custom branded version of Wirecast that is designed to only work with Ustream’s platform. Producer comes in two flavors, free and $199. The free version allows you to broadcast from a single camera, either a webcam or external standard definition DV camera over firewire in 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios. The coolest thing about the app is that you can mix in canned pre-recorded video clips, photos, audio and even virtually capture the desktop from another computer on your network. The $199 Pro version does all this with the addition of being able to switch between multiple cameras, add overlay graphics and bottom third titles. The Pro version also has a number of presets for higher quality streaming, though does not let you specify your own custom bitrate, frame rate or encoding format. One thing to note, Ustream claims that Producer Pro supports source input from HDV cameras, which is true. What is not noted is that you’ll need to pay an additional $99 on top off the $199 you’ve already shelled out for Pro to use your HDV camera. A work around, is to put your HDV camera in SD mode and you’ll avoid this, but of course, be limited to SD resolutions.
Livestream has its Livestream Procaster application, available for Mac and Windows. I’ve only used the Mac version, though it appears that the Windows version has some additional features not yet available in the Mac version, such as VP6 encoding and custom aspect ratios. Procaster, a free app, is comparable to Ustream’s free Producer app. Procaster, which only works with Livestream, makes it super easy to broadcast from a single camera to your Livestream channel. Your camera input can be a webcam or external DV or HDV connected firewire or USB camera. HDV is supported natively, no costly plug-in needed. Procaster let’s you set a broadcast to auto-record, allows you to switch between a camera and your desktop using several 2D and 3D transition styles. Similar to Ustream Producer, Procaster lets you choose between several presets for encoding & broadcast quality. Unlike Producer, you can also specify completely custom bitrates, frame rates and resolution.
That’s essentially where Procaster ends. There is no multi-camera option, or ability to drop in lower third titles. For this functionality, you would need to purchase something like Telestream’s Wirecast ($449). Wirecast is platform agnostic, will work with Livestream, Ustream, Justin or your own CDN or Flash Media Server. Wirecast will also let you record a full resolution DV copy of your broadcast to a local hard disk, while also streaming.
Justin.tv does not have a custom desktop broadcaster application, though as mentioned above, works with Telestream’s Wirecast as well as Adobe FMLE.
Mobile Broadcasting & Viewing
All three platforms have free mobile applications to broadcast and/or view live streams for iPhone and Android devices. They differ in some subtle ways. Ustream’s Broadcaster application allows anyone to broadcast live and interact with the social stream over wifi or 3G. It works fairly well, though if you’re in AT&T’s notorious horrible coverage areas, you’ll get a rather choppy experience. Ustream also has a separate Viewer app for viewing live broadcasts, so long as they are being broadcast in H.264/AAC or with Ustream Producer.
Justin.tv has a combined broadcaster and viewer app for iPhone and Android. Like Ustream, you can broadcast over wifi or 3G and send a tweet out when you go live. You can also interact with viewers in the chat from your device while broadcasting. The viewer side of the app has an extensive list of current live broadcasts which you can easily click to view.
Livestream does not have a mobile broadcaster app, only an iPhone app for viewing broadcasts. Another option, don’t bother getting the app and just point your mobile device’s browser to Livestream’s mobile site. Broadcasts are in HTML5 (encoded as H.264/AAC) and will play natively on an iPhone (and presumably Android devices).
Where the Money Is
If you take a look at the front pages of Ustream and Livestream, you’ll likely see promotions for upcoming broadcasts with notable brands, music artists and red carpet movie premieres. These events represent real revenue and currently Ustream and Livestream have a lock on this. Justin has declined persuing premium content revenue partnerships and is focused on user generated content, including lots of video game playing. Both Ustream and Livestream have, or are opening, LA offices to go after these premium entertainment deals (though based in SF, I was part of the LA media division at Ustream).
Also, pay-per-view (PPV). There’s a lot of potential here, if someone’s able to get it right. Currently, only Ustream has dabbled in a PPV service with a Dane Cook event back in January. Just recently, Ustream announced a PPV service they’re calling Open PPV. This will give approved broadcasters a way to monetize their channels. For some reason, many people are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money to watch people beat the crap out of each other.
The YouTube Factor
It’s no secret that YouTube has been building out live stream infrastructure and to date, successfully broadcast a number of highly trafficked events. Recently, YouTube experimented with four content partners in doing a week long series of live broadcasts.
A feature that YouTube has in their live player, that the other platforms don’t, is dynamic adaptive bitrate live streaming. What this means is the YouTube player is able to sniff your bandwidth and adjust itself according to how big your pipe is. If you’re viewing from a nice fat cable or fiber connection, you’ll see a high resolution, higher bitrate video. If you’re viewing from a crappy wifi or slow DSL connection, you’ll get a lower bitrate viewing experience that works with the slower connection. It’s similar to the experience you get while watching Hulu or a streamed Netflix movie. Why the current live streaming platforms have not adopted this, is a mystery, as adaptive bitrate streaming is nothing new. Adobe supports live dynamic adaptive bitrate streaming in Flash.
It may be too early to tell whether YouTube is going to roll out live streaming to the masses or whether they will continue to cherry pick select events and partners to work with in the future. Even if YouTube does not roll out en mass, they’ll likely be a formidable competitor to Ustream and Livestream’s premium content partner businesses.