Microsoft, Akamai Partner on “Smooth HD” Video; Alternative to Brightcove

So, are Akamai and Brightcove—digital media companies located just a block apart in Cambridge’s Kendall Square—partners, rivals, or both? The confusion grew today as Akamai said in a joint announcement with Microsoft that it will supply the network infrastructure behind a new “adaptive” system that streams high-definition video over the Internet at varying resolutions depending on the quality of the viewer’s broadband connection. Microsoft will supply the necessary Web server software for the service, which the two companies are calling Smooth HD.

Just two weeks ago, Brightcove introduced a basically identical service as part of its new Brightcove 3 video hosting platform, which has already been adopted by such media giants as AOL and the New York Times. Brightcove calls the adaptive-streaming feature “Dynamic Delivery“; it creates multiple copies of a video at different resolutions, and chooses the highest quality stream possible, based on the viewer’s connection speed.

What makes all this one-upsmanship even more interesting is that Akamai (NASDAQ: AKAM), which operates the world’s largest private network of content distribution servers, is one of Brightcove’s major suppliers. While Brightcove hosts its customers’ video files, it does not handle global distribution of the material—rather, it bundles access to content distribution networks like Akamai, Limelight, and Level 3 with its overall hosting package.

In essence, Akamai will now provide a similar service directly to companies that choose to host and distribute video on their own, using Microsoft’s Internet Information Server 7.0 Web server software and the Microsoft Silverlight video format. (Brightcove’s videos use the Adobe Flash format, which Brightcove CEO Jeremy Allaire helped to create when he was with the San Jose, CA-based media giant.)

Akamai says that its new service, called Akamai AdaptiveEdge Streaming for Microsoft Silverlight, will be available to “select customers” in beta form in early 2009. But it has already created a “technology preview” website demonstrating the Smooth HD technology. (The video on the site, including Jon Bon Jovi videos and underwater-exploration documentaries, streams with impressive immediacy and clarity. But you’ll need to download the Silverlight player, which works on both Windows machines and Intel-based Macs, to watch it.)

In their announcement, Akamai and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) say that media companies that publish high-definition video on the web—but arrange for the video quality to gracefully degrade depending on the user’s connection speed, rather than subjecting users to repeated buffering waits—will benefit from longer viewing times, greater brand awareness, and higher advertising revenues.

“The challenge is that capabilities in the online world vary greatly for each user,” Tim Napoleon, Akamai’s chief strategist for digital media, said in the statement. “Adaptive streaming allows the video to adjust to the audience, maximizing each user’s experience.”

Will Richmond, editor/publisher of the Boston-based Internet video news site VideoNuze, drives that point home in the Microsoft-Akamai release: “Especially in the HD era, premium video providers are recognizing that quality is king and as a result are accelerating their shift to more robust delivery infrastructure.”

Indeed they are—as Brightcove’s own highly publicized customer wins in the last couple of weeks testify. But Allaire told me in a recent interview that he does not see Akamai as a direct competitor. Brightcove users tend to see Akamai and other CDNs as the equivalent of telecom companies, providing a utility service separate from a company’s business applications. “I’m certainly aware of Akamai trying to add different things to what they do, and it’s certainly something we keep an eye on, but [competition with Akamai] is not something we’re seeing in the customer segment we’re serving with a product like this,” meaning Brightcove 3, Allaire said.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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