The rise of online video

Your guide to online video

Apple says it has sold over 30 million videos through its iTunes Store since October 2005. That's impressive. But YouTube, currently the most popular site for sharing amateur video, claims to serve up 100 million video viewings each day. That's stupefying.

These days, everything from Hollywood films and TV shows to clips from ordinary users is available right in your browser. Even cell phones are in on the act, with news, sports, and lots of short video segments just a dial away. But although video options are proliferating at an astonishing pace, problems persist, including format incompatibility across platforms, license restrictions on content, and -- still -- a limited selection of good videos.

Following is your guide to surfing the new video wave, with tips for viewing movies on your PC and on the go, plus pointers on sharing your own Oscar-caliber material.

Video on demand, the Web way

You come home tired and eager to watch a film or a TV show. Trudging over to the video store is out of the question, and Arrested Development was cancelled. So you turn to the mother lode of all media, the Web. You should be able to find what you want there, right?

You have a lot of options these days, from TV shows and short films on sites like iTunes or Google Video to movies on Big Pond, et al. Such sites make it easy to watch films on a laptop or PC, or perhaps a mobile player (without illegally ripping a DVD). And of course, you never have to leave home to get the film, or worry about returning it.

The challenge remains finding material that is worth watching and that approaches the kind of image quality you're used to -- and that is better or cheaper than what's on your home recorder, or what you can get from quickflix or Amazon.

Web of film

Sites such as Bigpond offer downloads of new and old films and videos. A standard film runs around 1GB and costs between $4 and $6 to view for 48 hours from the first viewing. You can also download free content, such as movie trailers.

With broadband service, you can start watching a movie soon after it begins downloading, though the file transfer may take an hour or three to complete. To be safe, wait 15 minutes or so to begin viewing; we had occasional problems when playback caught up with the download. Images are worse-than-DVD quality, and you may have to watch the film with the service's own player, and be restricted to viewing it on the PC you download to.

The selection of titles can charitably be described as mixed, though some recent releases are concurrent with their DVD debut. Compared with the 60,000 titles on US site Netflix, Bigpond's movie download site offers a small array of titles. Even a typical independent video store has more titles -- for now.

Selection and quality should improve. Many industry experts believe online services will inevitably become the primary form of video delivery.

Must-see Net TV

Most major networks and producers make some recent and archival TV shows available through their own Web sites. A growing body of content is viewable for free, with the revenue coming from commercials. As a trial, ABC released free downloads in the US of a few popular shows such as Desperate Housewives and Lost the day after they aired, with ads. Google Video, too, is experimenting a bit with ad-supported video.

Increasingly, you see well-produced, original Web content, as well. For example, both CBS's Innertube and MTV Overdrive offer clips from broadcast shows along with online-only reality, talk, and magazine shows.

ABCnews.com, NBC, and others present free nightly newscasts along with single-story videos. Some local stations have good content, too: Check out the Florida-based Studio 55, which has a high-quality, daily news video podcast.

However, most free programs play as Flash Video (.flv) files on the provider's site -- no easy downloads for offline viewing. And you can't subscribe to or watch content from all sites with one viewer. Although Blinkx.tv and Yahoo both offer improving Web-wide video search, no one has the equivalent of a comprehensive program guide that makes both commercial and sharing sites searchable in one place. Also, with today's broadband, high-def video takes too long to download, and content is scarce.

Moreover, unless your PC is connected to your TV, you have few ways to easily bring Web content to your living room. TiVo's TiVoCast and Akimbo offer two of the few alternatives: Each service downloads videos from partner sites to its set-top box for TV viewing. TiVoCast has launched with ten partners in the US, such as iVillage and the New York Times, while Akimbo has 100 partners, with video ranging from A&E's biography and history shows to short movies from iFilm to clips from the Karaoke Channel.

Most commercial content providers currently avoid distributing their libraries via RSS feeds and peer-to-peer, presumably due to concerns about file trading. However, Warner Brothers' agreement with P-to-P developer BitTorrent to use its technology to sell and distribute movies and shows suggests that Hollywood's hesitancy may be lessening.

Commercial video sources: iTunes stands out

iTunes' selection, video quality, and ease of use distinguish it from the rest of the pack, though it lacks feature films.

Video on the go

With the right gear, your favorite shows, movies, and video clips can accompany you wherever you go. Mobile video devices come in two categories: lightweight players such as the Apple iPod, Creative Zen, and Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP), onto which you download content from your computer or the Web; and video-capable cell phones that pull in prepackaged clips of news, sports, and other short content. You'll find a wider selection of material -- and slightly better video quality -- with the players, but phones offer fresher content.

The iPod and PSP have the most market share and thus have the broadest support from tool developers and content providers. In addition to the iTunes Store and the 250 films on PSP-compatible 2.5-inch UMDs (Universal Media Disc), inexpensive programs such as MoviePod (US$10) and PSPWare (US$15), both from Nullriver, provide drag-and-drop batch conversion of common video files into clips compatible with iPods or PSPs, and then automatically download the files to the players.

The Web has plenty of content, too. Google Video, for example, has downloadable iPod and PSP versions of the free videos on its site. Want an easy way to receive RSS video feeds for your iPod or PSP? FireAnt, Videora, and soon Democracy Player each can find, download, convert, and sync RSS video feeds to these mobile devices, not just to your PC. FireAnt is currently the most evolved, and it integrates Yahoo video searching, but Democracy Player has a lot of potential. All three are as easy to use as a typical RSS news reader.

Apple and Sony aren't the only players in town. Palm Desktop, which is bundled with all Palm OS devices, includes QuickInstall, an app that can perform drag-and-drop conversion of many types of video for playback on the handheld. The open-source Core Pocket Media Player is a bit finicky, but also lets Palm, Windows Mobile, and other devices (though not the iPod) play a wide range of popular video files.

Windows Media devices have less downloadable video available than iPods and PSPs do, with CinemaNow the main commercial source for films in the US. But you can use Windows Media Player 10 or 11 to convert several video formats into files compatible with the increasingly interesting Portable Media Center players from Creative, iRiver, Toshiba, and others.

To watch TV shows as you go about town, you have several options. If you already subscribe to TiVo, download the company's new US$25 Desktop Plus software, a one-time purchase that lets you move video from your TiVo onto an iPod, a PSP, a Treo, or certain Nokia devices. If you already own a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC, you can use WMP 10 or 11 to easily transfer your stored video from the PC to compatible devices.

Some services go further, like the $30 SlingPlayer Mobile. Although not all the glitches have been worked out, it lets you use a newer Windows Mobile device, such as the Motorola Q, on a 3G (third-generation) phone network to remotely watch and control your TV and DVR via the $200 Slingbox TV-streaming device. For free, Orb Networks offers similar features for devices with Windows Media Player.

Call for video

While handhelds let you easily watch video anywhere, in most cases you must load the player before you leave home, or use a separate service. New cell phones and networks let you receive video anywhere -- well, anywhere there's a fast 3G network. Check with your provider to find out if you have service in your area.

The services have a lot of content overlap. Typically you can view a few music videos, recent sports and news highlights, or movie trailers. Most channels aren't live but are updated regularly.

But just because you can see video on your cell, doesn't mean you'd want to. Navigating the menus, plus waiting for the media players to load and the content to buffer, can take 10 to 30 seconds. The clips are often highly compressed files at 176-by-144-pixel resolution and 15 frames per second, playing on just part of the phone's screen. Even good images are so tiny that it's not fun to look at them for long. Not that you can -- most phone content is less than 3 minutes long; anything longer may rebuffer every minute or so.

My rule for mobile video is simple: The smaller the screen, the more basic and personal the content. Lawrence of Arabia? No. Sports highlights? Perhaps. Talking heads and short, focused clips? Okay. Hilarious video podcasts from Strong Bad Emails? Now you're talking!

Your video, on the Web

You just came back from a vacation in Thredbo, and you want to wow your family with videos of your toboggan prowess. Or maybe you got your friend's 'sick day' hole-in-one on your cell phone, and you want to share it with your buddies but not your boss. Or perhaps you caught dramatic rescues of flood victims and want to share the clip with the world.

YouTube and the dozens of easy-to-use, free video-sharing sites like it can help you do all those things. Many of the sites offer the same core features; where they differ is in their popularity, their support for video to and from mobile devices, and their ability to restrict viewing to people you select.

Video-sharing sites are currently more similar than they are distinctive, and the services will probably become even more alike as they draw inspiration from one another. Typically they let you upload MPEG, QuickTime, and Windows Media formats, which the sites will then convert to Flash Video (.flv) files for hosting and playback. Flash offers good image quality and fast playback, and over 95 percent of systems already run it. Practically every site gives HTML links to embed your video in your blog or other Web page, or you can e-mail the link to friends and family.

All the sites present some hassles, as well. Over most DSL and cable lines, expect to spend 3 to 20 minutes uploading a 3-minute clip. Most services have a license to use your clips any way they want, and you must indemnify them from any liability for your content.

But such sites still have differences, a key one being traffic. According to online market researcher Hitwise, in late spring YouTube was by far the most frequented sharing site with 43 percent of all visits to video sites. Popularity has its downside: Although recent, well-known, and highly rated videos are called out to visitors, the 35,000 new clips added each day make it easy for your opus to get lost in the YouTube video jungle.

If you want a breadth of video options for delivery to different devices, other services merit consideration. Google Video automatically generates downloadable iPod and PSP versions of free content. Several services, like Eyespot, offer delivery to mobile phones. If you're creating longer pieces, you may need a site that doesn't limit file size or length, like Google Video or Ourmedia.org.

Several sites, like Eyespot, Jumpcut, and YouTube, also let you send clips via MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) over high-speed cellular networks such as EvDO and UMTS directly to your account's page. Sprint and Verizon offer similar -- though less flexible -- features that let their users upload and share videos. And services such as Abazab.com and Umundo.com let you send phone video via MMS directly to your pages on MySpace and My Yahoo, for example. All are free (for now), with Jumpcut's simple editing making it the most attractive.

Once your video is posted, controlling who sees it is difficult -- just ask Hollywood. Or Paris Hilton. If you need some privacy, send clips to a site that supports private groups where you specify who can see your video. Know, however, that privacy features can be defeated, so if you're worried about any dire consequences if your video gets out, don't post it at all.

No site stands far above the rest, but Eyespot's balance of innovative cell-phone features, private groups, downloadable clips, and online editing and mixing raises it just a bit above its peers.

However, with many of these services being up-front about their beta status, and others in denial, the situation may change tomorrow as new features debut and sites try to figure out how to pay for all the technology and bandwidth they're giving away. Sites like VideoEgg get revenue from licensing their uploading technology to AOL, while Revver and others insert ads into submitted videos (some share revenue with submitters).

Video sharing has become so popular, Microsoft is getting into the game. Its YouTube-like project, code-named Warhol, is scheduled to go live by year's end, though no details are currently available.

Regardless of coming changes, one thing will remain constant: On the Net, only a thin line separates professional and amateur content -- which means you could be the next Web-video idol.

Eyespot tops competing video-sharing sites

In an ever more crowded field, Eyespot has the edge for now, thanks to its editing tools and mobile delivery options.

Digital video rights and wrongs

What can you do with the video you buy and download off the Web? The answer depends on where you got the content. Most sites that have copyrighted content such as commercial movies prohibit reselling or redistributing the video file and use digital rights management schemes to back that up.

Beyond that, restrictions vary by the site. For example, you can use the videos you buy from iTunes on up to five authorized devices such as PCs and iPods. Google Video's copy-protected content -- which includes most of its good commercial videos -- plays only in its viewer app or on a PC with a live Net connection. Neither site lets you burn video to DVD for living-room playback.

The US site CinemaNow has started allowing customers to burn a limited selection of purchased movies to DVD. These DVDs will work in your living-room player. Movielink recently said it plans to offer the same capability -- via Sonic Solutions' software -- once studios give the go-ahead. Prior to this change in policy, both services allowed you to burn mainstream-movie DVDs that played only in your PC.

Broadcast TV on phones?

Current cell-phone video offerings are underwhelming, but two (incompatible) technologies coming soon will let more carriers provide multiple live TV channels. DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld), promoted by Motorola, Nokia, and Intel, and FLO (Forward Link Only), from Qualcomm's MediaFLO USA division, will both beam live video to your phone; each requires an overlay network on top of a 3G network.

Current 3G nets have unicast capabilities, which work well for calls with a signal traveling between a single transmitter and receiver. But unicast networks bog down if many users demand the same content; extra bandwidth is needed for each additional viewer of, say, a live World Series clip. DVB-H and FLO will let 3G networks multicast: One transmitter will reach many receivers.

In the U.S., Hiwire and Modeo are building DVB-H networks; no cell carriers have announced plans to use them yet. Verizon has signed up for FLO.

The network roll-outs should begin in late 2006 and throughout 2007. Also on the way: TDtv, from the Sprint-funded IPWireless, which runs over existing 3G nets. You may also hear talk of firms' using WiMax, also known as 802.16 (a wireless broadband standard with longer range than 802.11 Wi-Fi), on handheld devices, but no plans have been announced.

Prep your video for sharing

To whip your raw video into shape and make it into a pretty good file for Web sharing, you don't have to spend much -- or anything at all. Microsoft's free Windows Movie Maker 2.1 provides enough tools to perform simple file edits. Its output is limited, however, to Windows Media and DV-AVI.

To save in other formats, you'll need a tool like Apple's QuickTime 7 Pro for Windows. It's easy to use and will export in many formats, including MPEG-4. If you don't want to use two apps to prep your video, you could let your chosen sharing site do the conversion and compression for you, or use more complete tools.

In more expensive apps such as Pinnacle Systems Studio Plus 10.5 Titanium Edition and Ulead VideoStudio 10 Plus, you get more features and output flexibility. They handle all common video formats (plus high-def video from HDV camcorders), allow more flexible editing, create nice graphics, and can output to MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 for DVD, Web, iPod, and PSP playback. (For reviews of these applications and compression tips, see our video reference guide.)

You can eliminate desktop editing entirely with sites like Eyespot, Jumpcut, and VideoEgg, where users first upload raw footage and then edit it through Web-based interfaces. Uploading your raw files might take a while, and the editing features are more limited than those in Windows Movie Maker. But the sites simplify editing phone video, encourage users to let others integrate their footage and projects with their own, and make such integration easy -- very Web 2.0.

Video podcasts: Vodcast playlist

Most vodcasts aren't worth your time. These are.

Tech focus:

- DL.TV: Discussion of hands-on product reviews, trends, and news.

- Diggnation: Tech talk stemming from the biggest stories on Digg.com.

- commandN: News and reviews of tech trends and gear.

- Beet.tv: Good interviews with media technology luminaries.

Just for fun:

- Ask A Ninja: A white ninja answers life's oddest questions.

- AtomFilms To Go: Short comedy, drama, and other films.

- Cult of UHF: Where else can you see Hercules Against the Moon Men?

- Strong Bad Email: Funny animated answers to mail.

Video compression cues

You shot a great video of your camping trip to Yosemite, you've edited it to showcase the highlights, and now you're ready to share it. Before you output anything, however, you must set your file's compression. For clips from a camcorder or TV, select the deinterlace option if your software offers one; it will help the codec create smoother-running files for Web and mobile playback.

From there, you must balance image quality with patience: Bigger files generate better images, but uploading to a sharing site can take from 1 to 5 minutes or more per megabyte. In general, I would recommend exporting your video as a 320-by-240 MPEG-4 file running at 30 frames per second with MP3 audio and a 1200-kilobits-per-second data rate, which generates a good-looking file that runs around 10MB per minute. Google Video prefers clips that are 640-by-480 MPEG-4 files at a 2-megabits-per-second data rate; these files run around 15MB per minute and look noticeably sharper.

For iPod playback, I'd let iTunes handle the conversion or use QuickTime to create a 320-by-240-pixel H.264 file with AAC-LC audio and a data rate up to 768 kbps. For PSP, a good starting point is a 368-by-208 MPEG-4 file at a 1500-kbps data rate, for about 11MB per minute. You can also simply use the iPod or PSP output settings in the free Videora conversion utilities or in your video editing application.

Calling the future: Cellular networks speed upgrades

To truly take advantage of the new video services and live TV offerings that will soon be coming to your cell phone, you'll need faster networks. Here's a rundown of the improvements you can expect in the next few years.

The Rev. A update to 1xEvDO (Evolution Data Only, or Evolution Data Optimized) networks will increase download speeds to phones from standard 1xEvDO's theoretical maximum of 2.4 megabits per second to 3.1 mbps, and will raise upload speeds from 150 kilobits per second to 1.8 mbps.

HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) upgrades UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) networks to a theoretical maximum of 10.8 mbps down and 384 kbps up; the first version of HSDPA, already available in some areas, offers maximum speeds of 1.8 mbps. Real-world speeds will be lower, but sending video from your phone to the Internet or to another phone will become less painful.

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