Akamai Delivers Live, High-Quality Video to the iPhone

For a long time, watching video on the Apple iPhone meant YouTube or nothing—and it only worked if you were within range of a Wi-Fi network. But now Cambridge, MA-based content distribution firm Akamai is helping many of its customers optimize live and recorded video for direct delivery to iPhones. Which, in effect, turns Apple’s devices into mobile televisions: if you’re at the bus stop and have a craving for Fox Business News, for example, it’s now there for you, even if you don’t have a strong Wi-Fi or 3G signal.

It’s all part of the iPhone 3.0 changeover. When Apple released the update for the iPhone’s operating system on June 17, it offered an improvement especially designed to help people on the go watch video on their phones even when they’re in areas with flaky broadband wireless access. Called “variable bit rate streaming,” the technology has long been a feature of most Web-based video delivery; it allows video providers to adjust the quality of streaming video in real time to fit the available bandwidth.

Last week Akamai said its clients publishing iPhone video can now take advantage of variable bit rate streaming as part of the company’s existing Media Delivery service. It also launched a mobile showcase for organizations doing exactly that. The showcase, at iphone.akamai.com, includes live and previously recorded videos from NASA, NPR, Fox News, USA Today, and the Discovery Channel, among other publishers.

To generate the live video streams, which include Fox Business News and NASA TV, Akamai turned to Raleigh, NC-based Inlet Technologies for help. Inlet’s “adaptive streaming” technology turns a live TV broadcast into digital packets that go out over a wireless system like AT&T’s 3G EV-DO network at whatever bit rate the network and the destination device can handle. That means users don’t have to pick from high- or low-bandwidth video streams, don’t have to wait while video “re-buffers,” and aren’t even aware when the stream shifts from a lower rate to a higher one, or vice versa.

Inlet also makes video encoding software that helps media companies build up libraries of recorded video content that can then be delivered on demand. That’s what most of the companies featured in the Akamai iPhone showcase are doing; today’s lineup, for example, includes several short episodes from USA Today’s “Talking Tech” video feature and a selection of animated slide shows accompanying audio reports from NPR News.

Akamai’s role is to transport the Inlet-encoded video over its global network to the AT&T media servers closest to the actual iPhone users requesting the material. The company hopes to work with more broadcasters to get their programs to iPhone and iPod Touch owners, who consume far more broadband content than owners of other mobile devices. (Some 80 percent of all data requests from mobile devices over Wi-Fi networks come from iPhones and iPod Touch devices, according to Akamai.)

“Apple’s extensive support for new web standards like HTML 5 and HTTP streaming of live and on-demand video to the iPhone and iPod touch has transformed the quality of video content that consumers can now view while mobile,” Tim Napoleon, Akamai’s chief strategist for digital media, said in an announcement last week. “To be able to watch video anytime, anywhere at a quality this high is nothing short of amazing.”

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

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