From Netflix to V-Nova: Online video companies to watch

You.i TV interfaces
You.i TV demonstrates its Treehouse mobile app at IBC 2016. Image: FierceOnlineVideo

What online video providers and vendors are turning heads in 2016? Which are setting the standards, surviving and even thriving in a topsy-turvy video landscape? More than ever, it seems that an OTT-focused company’s success is determined largely by two factors: consumers’ fast-changing whims and the technology rising to meet their demands.

Last year, FierceOnlineVideo profiled 15 top startups in the OTT space. This year, the online video segment changed quickly – we saw increased consolidation as large-scale providers snapped up technology assets, while at the same time end-to-end delivery services began to snap into place with vendors like Wowza, Level 3, Akamai, Limelight, Brightcove and several others providing key elements all the way down the delivery chain. The startup environment is still in place, but this year providers seemed much more interested in monetizing the technology assets (and content assets) that they have, than investing in new solutions to existing video delivery problems.

That’s not to say that OTT innovation isn’t happening, or that the startup scene for OTT isn’t vibrant. In fact, I expect to see a flurry of new technology development in 2017 as the industry turns its attention directly toward quality of experience (QoE) problems.

This year however, a number of companies both large and small continued to make an impact on the development of online video technology. We’re profiling four of them in this feature, including some very familiar names and a couple that some readers may never have heard of. Some of them could be called disruptive; others are established and simply building on their brand. But all are working with the goal of making the experience for consumers better.


1. Netflix

Set aside all the chatter and worry about Netflix’s potential subscriber slowdown and the rumors about it being acquired by some larger media entity, and take a closer look instead at the SVOD provider’s methodical work to improve its user interfaces, video encoding and other elements of its online streaming service.

What’s more, many of the elements its engineering unit works with are open source. Take for instance projects like Zuul 2, its re-architected cloud gateway, or its NDBench cloud data benchmarking architecture – both released to the developer community recently.

With Zuul 2, Netflix is working to improve its subscribers’ experience with its video streaming product.  “(T)he primary advantage (one that we expected when embarking on this work) is that it provides the capability for devices and web browsers to have persistent connections back to Netflix at Netflix scale,” said the company’s cloud gateway team in a post on the company’s tech blog. “With more than 83 million members, each with multiple connected devices, this is a massive scale challenge.”

Similarly, NDBench – short for Netflix Data Benchmarking – is a “pluggable, cloud-enabled benchmarking tool that can be used across any data store system.” The tool was initially created to give Netflix’s cloud data team a way to manage multiple data storage systems, test those systems and run comparisons to other data store systems – in short, Netflix has a lot of diverse data store systems run by the many different “microservices” that are used to deliver its content to subscribers.

Earlier this year Netflix detailed the massive A/B tests of its user interface as it tried to find better ways to entice users to commit to and watch content – things like different artwork for its thumbnail images, various types of High Impact Tiles (HIT), and even a look at its testing workflow.

The provider has a lot of compute power to work with. Netflix content has been completely shifted into a cloud environment, but the SVOD provider still has quite a number of its own servers, and it maintains additional AWS (Amazon Web Services) space to run large-scale tests and compile data.

Okay, some people might say, but Netflix isn’t the only large-scale provider employing a big team to solve its in-house QoE challenges. True – however, the provider is putting considerable time and effort into detailing many of its solutions in its tech blog, while supporting the open-source movement where it can. With a number of QoE, encoding and other standards being tweaked and debated and argued over at the moment, working to prove certain OTT delivery use cases at scale is critically important.


2. You.i TV

When You.i TV came onto the user interface scene a few years ago, online video providers were using content guides not much evolved from the on-demand movie menus employed by pay-TV providers. Streaming customers generally scrolled through a gallery of thumbnail images to pick the content they wanted, and search and discovery elements of these guides were somewhat limited.

Now, “There’s no better business to be in than the interface business these days,” says You.i’s head of marketing, Trisha Cooke.

Co-founded by current CEO Jason Flick and CTO Stuart Russell, the Ottawa-based company looked to solve the problem of user interfaces within streaming and TV Everywhere apps. For content providers, the user interfaces that consumers see are generally the end result of serious compromises between design and function. “The pivot point was, you designed something absolutely beautiful. But then, in most cases in the old [UI] world, then you start negotiating,” Cooke said in an interview with FierceOnlineVideo. Providers found themselves trading away attractive design elements just so they could get a functioning UI running in order to launch their streaming service on time. “All those things just start to fade away and the business owner just goes, oh my lord, I just want to get an app in-market.”

You.i’s founders decided to take a page from the video game industry, looking at “how beautiful they are and how immersive and at 60 fps? And how they have one code base across every platform and have done that since the beginning? And it’s pixel perfect regardless of the device. And another thing is that GPU is purpose-built. Why don’t we have that in the apps world?” Cooke explained.

Drawing on Russell’s experience building video game engines, the company launched its flagship product, You.i Engine, in 2008, and adapted it to the multiscreen market. The company uses Adobe Creative Engine on the front end of its product, which makes it easier for customers’ UI designers to work with the interfaces as well because it plugs directly into Adobe After Effects.

“We figured that all out, so we make everybody happy in the triangle. The business owner gets to [market on time]; the tech guy gets the platform that he can use in a cost effective manner; and the design guy gets to see the brand come to life like never before.”

While a few app-creation products have entered the market this year that will get a provider’s app launched in as little as 24 hours – such as JW Player’s app creator -- You.i TV’s product helps speed up time to market for apps being done at scale by larger content providers, who have a lot at stake when it comes to keeping users fascinated by their app. High-quality graphics and ease of use are among their top requests.

And once their interface is live, clients want to be able to implement changes quicker, at much lower cost. You.i TV’s product is built so that interface changes can be made on the fly, by either You.i’s designers or the client’s own development and design staff.

“At the early stages (of meetings) there’s so much disbelief because people have been so conditioned that they think it’s impossible” to redo their user interface in minutes rather than weeks. “So instead of making it academic with customers, we have to lean in” and demonstrate the process, said Cooke.

The company has signed five major customers in the past year, including the now-defunct shomi, the Canadian Football League, Sony’s Crackle AVOD service, Shaw Communications-owned Corus Entertainment, and Turner Networks.

Interest around the company’s engine is intensifying: You.i TV jumped from sixty-fifth to fifteenth on Canada’s Profit 500 list this year. Further, Turner led the company’s $12 million Series B funding round in September.


3. IBM Cloud Video

IBM may be known by consumers as just a big, old computer company that is currently touting an AI-like technology called Watson in its TV commercials. But the OTT industry has been watching this venerable tech giant for a few years now as it bulks up IBM Cloud Video, a portfolio it hopes will become a single-source online video delivery resource for content providers.

Where does IBM Cloud Video stand out from a host of other at-scale, end-to-end vendors like Imagine Communications? According to Gregor McElvogue, director of video offerings for IBM Cloud, the company can serve best-of-breed online video delivery to not only OTT distributors but also a number of other verticals – education, healthcare, government, and so on.

“Now they can for the first time look at IBM as a single source provider from production all the way through to distribution. Cloud video sits on top of some of that … but cloud video combined with of the traditional IBM offerings that we have, gives IBM a very broad offering in the marketplace that I don’t think anyone else can beat.”

McElvogue is a “heritage” IBM employee – one who has been with the organization for several years – whose job it is to bridge the divide between IBM Cloud and its newly acquired OTT companies, Clearleap and UStream, as their assets and personnel are integrated into the corporation.

The shift to cloud-based services, and over the top video delivery, isn’t just an add-on for IBM; it indicates a big change in strategy at the company.

“This is a new unit for IBM. It’s not like we’ve acquired technology that we’re bringing into an existing unit and filling in gaps in the existing portfolio,” McElvogue said in an interview with FierceOnlineVideo at IBC 2016. “…It’s a brand new direction for IBM as a corporation.”

For some in the industry, IBM’s move into OTT video delivery seems very much like a “me-too” strategy. But McElvogue countered that the company had a compelling reason for the pivot.

“We’re known for selling into big enterprises, into mission-critical systems, to help other corporate companies take advantage of technologies. That’s really the motivation behind moving into this space. … we were beginning to see before the acquisitions that this is something that was becoming more and more important to our core customer set … in things like healthcare, life sciences, financial services, insurance, banking and so forth – we were beginning to see video move into those. And when that started happening, the amount of growth that we could see in the video industry, is just tremendous.

“With that amount of growth in the space, it was time for us to move in.”

IBM can use all of its resources for varied R&D efforts in the cloud video space, including Watson, which at IBC showcased its contextual speech to text capabilities, which are applicable for a number of video needs such as live closed captioning.

But bringing Clearleap and UStream, in particular, into the fold has provided an added benefit to IBM’s strategy. “What we got with the acquisitions was both the ability to talk with customers about how you capture this (live) content; … and how you take that content and put it out in the market in a very attractive way,” said McElvogue.

Being able to sell to the media and entertainment industry and sell enterprise video could very well be the right formula for IBM Cloud Video, with its established corporate customer base. McElvogue said that IBM will be taking what it learns from delivering high-quality, scalable video for content owners and distributors, and applying it to the enterprise video market.

“If you’re a corporate employee trying to watch a training video or educational video … you have exactly the same frustration (as an entertainment consumer) if the education video that you’re watching starts to buffer and spin. They may be separate markets but the technology challenges are exactly the same.”


4. V-Nova

London-based startup V-Nova may not be well-known on U.S. shores, but the data compression company is looking to change that as soon as possible. And as wireless carriers struggle to keep their networks’ capacity ahead of growing demand for mobile video streaming, its software-based compression solution may soon vault the company into rapid growth mode.

V-Nova’s signature product is Perseus, a data compression product that it says can enable Ultra HD-quality video at HD bitrates without the need for a network upgrade, nor a hardware (chip) addition to IP-connected devices. The company markets the product on both contribution and distribution sides of the video ecosystem – meaning, for example, that broadcasters can produce video at remote production locations and get it to the studio even with limited data rates available; and video distributors can offer much higher-quality video to consumers even in bandwidth-constrained environments.

As V-Nova CEO and co-founder Guido Meardi told FierceOnlineVideo at IBC, wireless carriers in particular see a lot of value in Perseus. “This is massive because it means that an operator can start deploying it immediately to the devices that need it the most. … (With mobile) it’s the more constrained part of the transmission. It matters to the user because they’re paying for the data. It matters to the provider because they’re saving on encoding, storage and time,” he said.

The company first demonstrated Perseus’ software-based compression, transmission and decoding capabilities in mid-2015 with a somewhat limited live streaming test over an LTE network. Since then, however, it has been working with various providers in Europe and Asia-Pacific to further trial out the solution. Most notable of those is its work with Eutelsat, which in September announced a strategic partnership with V-Nova in which it took a minority stake in the company.

Eutelsat is a near-perfect fit for V-Nova, Meardi said. For Eutelsat, Perseus enables the DTH provider to test new ways to compress and send data via satellite – a problem that consumers in remote areas like sub-Saharan Africa, Alaska and other regions continue to face. For V-Nova, the influence Eutelsat has in the pay-TV industry is opening doors – for example, V-Nova delivered Eutelsat’s 4K stream for the Euro 16 futbol championship this summer, something UEFA wasn’t entirely sure about until the satellite provider vouched for the startup.

V-Nova is looking ahead – not just 4K and HDR video, but virtual reality and 360-degree video, which Meardi points out leapfrogs 8K technology and requires 16K resolution in order to deliver high-quality, immersive experiences.  “A lot of the industry is talking about 8K. But when you stitch together multiple HD cameras you get insanely high resolution. If you want to use an HD screen (resolution for VR), stitching HD screens around you means about 16K. … How on earth are you going to encode 16K, transmit it, store it and decode it on devices?”

And ultimately, he feels Perseus will be able to tackle that holy grail of streaming video – concurrency, where as many people watch streaming video as traditional TV broadcasts. Right now, networks can’t support that level of viewers, Meardi said. “The problem is when you have a fixed capacity that is relatively low, which is the case for networks today all around, not just for satellite – think about mobile networks. If 100 percent of people were streaming right now, the whole network would collapse. If 40 percent of people were streaming video right now, the network would collapse. So they can serve very few people because if they cater to everybody, nobody can sustain it.”

It’s still early days for V-Nova, and Eutelsat is its first strategic partnership since launching 18 months ago. Meardi said that while the U.S. is on its radar, the company has put Asia-Pacific into its sights in the near-term -- especially since 83 percent of mobile users in China alone stream video, compared to just 23 percent in the U.S. “We had so much attraction from Asia that it slowed down our American deployment,” he said. But he confirmed that the startup is talking with some “very large” American players and that doing business in the U.S. will happen. “Soon we’ll also have an official presence, we’re just figuring it out.”