Apple's HTTP Adaptive Video Streaming in Action

The upgrade to the iPhone operating system has the potential to significantly change consumers' experience of mobile video

When Apple (AAPL) upgraded its iPhone operating system in June, it included some highly prominent and loudly demanded features, like search and copy & paste. But the Cupertino (Calif.) computer maker also added some behind-the-scenes upgrades that haven't yet started to show up in most iPhone users' daily experiences. One of them, HTTP video streaming, has the capability to substantially change how mobile video is perceived and consumed.

HTTP streaming enables publishers to give users a better video experience by employing adaptive streaming techniques, something other players such as Microsoft (MSFT), Adobe Systems (ADBE), Move Networks, and Swarmcast already offer (though Adobe uses a more traditional proprietary real-time streaming protocol to do so, rather than sending chunks of video over standard HTTP like the others). That means that watchers can enjoy a continuous, smooth video experience. The stream intelligently adjusts to the highest quality a viewer can receive at each moment. If the connectivity worsens, a lower-quality stream is substituted without interruption or buffering. (For a more extensive explanation about adaptive streaming, see this subscription-only piece from GigaOM Pro.) HTTP streaming is set to come to Apple computers this fall with the release of Mac OS X Snow Leopard, but it's live on iPhones now.

Apple only made its HTTP streaming plans known to the world in the very beginning of June, so very little content is available in the format now. However, it let two encoding companies, Inlet Technologies and Envivio, in on its plans so they could prepare solutions for content providers. (Here's an interview with an Inlet executive about how exactly Apple's HTTP streaming works.) One Inlet implementation, with Major League Baseball's At Bat application, is already live.

Opportunity for Developers

But where it gets really interesting is that Apple's HTTP streaming is available via the iPhone's Safari browser, without the downloading of any application. And both Inlet and Envivio have prepared demonstration sites so you can see video sharpen to adjust to your connection in real time. Through either site, you can view live-streaming, fast-loading, high-quality video in QuickTime right from your mobile browser.

Inlet's test site, made in partnership with Akamai (AKAM), can be found at Envivio's demo is not publicly available yet, but those who are interested can sign up for a pass here.

Some open Internet advocates have cried foul on iPhone carrier AT&T's (T) handling of MLB's At Bat app, saying its HTTP streaming-powered live game broadcasts do exactly what AT&T has prohibited Sling Media from doing: redirecting television over the mobile network.

But that controversy belies the opportunity Apple's new video streaming offers. Because HTTP streaming is possible through the browser, developers who use it don't need to pass through Apple and AT&T's thorny App Store approval process. (They also don't have to expend the cost and effort of building out a specialized app.) At this point, anyone who enables the technology is free to run it on 3G or Wi-Fi.

Here is a short demo video we made of the two HTTP streaming sites playing on my iPhone. You can see for yourself that they load up over 3G in my browser with a continuous smooth stream. We can't wait to watch what people do next with this stuff.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.