The Evolution of HTTP Streaming

4 min read Michael Carroll on Dec 13, 2023
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In the third quarter of 2022, a staggering 7.2 billion hours of content were consumed through live streaming, a statistic that highlights the immense popularity of streaming media and underlines the critical role of HTTP streaming technologies in shaping our viewing experiences. 

In this article, we trace the evolution of HTTP streaming, from its initial phase of progressive download, which allowed early viewers to watch partial content downloads, to advanced protocols like HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) and Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (DASH). These developments not only enhanced the quality and accessibility of streaming but also efficiently managed bandwidth and network variability. 

This exploration reflects on the past achievements in HTTP streaming and also provides insights into its future potential in an era where digital media consumption continues to soar.

The genesis of online video: Understanding progressive download

Progressive download was a streaming method where media files were downloaded in sequence, allowing playback to start before the entire file was fully downloaded. This method, prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, catered to the era's limited bandwidth, making full media file downloads time-consuming.

Its simplicity and compatibility with standard web servers and browsers were its main advantages, facilitating easy implementation and immediate playback. 

However, progressive download was bandwidth-inefficient, requiring complete file downloads and potentially leading to resource wastage if the entire content wasn't viewed. It also struggled with adapting to variable network speeds, often resulting in buffering in low-bandwidth scenarios. Additionally, it offered limited support for live streaming and had restrictions in seeking functionality, as users could only skip to already downloaded video parts.

In the context of today's high-speed internet and advanced streaming technologies, progressive download has largely been superseded by more efficient methods like adaptive bitrate streaming, which offers a more optimized and user-friendly viewing experience. However, its simplicity and broad compatibility made it a crucial stepping stone in the evolution of online media streaming.

Evolving the streaming experience: The rise of HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS)

HDS, developed by Adobe, improved upon progressive download by segmenting video files into smaller fragments, allowing dynamic bitrate adjustments based on the user's bandwidth and playback conditions. Some of its advantages include:

  • Improved seeking and fast start: Enables quick navigation and fast playback start in videos, reducing delay and enhancing user engagement

  • Enhanced live streaming support: Offers superior live streaming compared to progressive download, ensuring seamless experiences for live events

  • Content protection and monetization: Integrates with Adobe Access for digital rights management (DRM) and supports various monetization models, securing content and facilitating diverse revenue options

  • Support for rich media analytics: Allows integration with analytics tools for insights into viewer behavior and video performance, aiding in content strategy optimization

  • Compatibility with existing infrastructure: Works with standard HTTP servers and networks, easing deployment and reducing costs

  • Fallback to progressive download: Can switch to progressive download in less optimal streaming situations, expanding accessibility

HDS saw significant adoption due to its improved streaming capabilities, particularly for live events and high-definition content. However, it faced challenges due to its reliance on Adobe's proprietary technologies, which limited its universal applicability and compatibility with open web standards.

Streamlining video delivery: The impact of HTTP Live Streaming (HLS)

HLS, developed by Apple, marked a further advancement in streaming technology. Its strengths include:

  • Adaptive bitrate streaming: Automatically adjusts video quality to match the viewer's internet speed, reducing buffering for a smoother viewing experience

  • Segmented file delivery: Splits content into small chunks for efficient transmission, enabling quick adaptation to changing network conditions

  • Broad compatibility: Supports a wide range of devices and platforms, ensuring accessibility for a diverse audience

  • Versatile content delivery: Can handle both live streaming and video on demand (VOD), making it suitable for various streaming needs

  • Security features: Offers encryption and DRM support to protect content from unauthorized access and piracy

  • Standard HTTP-based infrastructure: Utilizes existing web infrastructure for easy deployment and reduced costs

  • Network resilience: Demonstrates improved reliability in the face of network issues like packet loss, ensuring consistent streaming quality

  • Multi-language and subtitle support: Accommodates multiple audio tracks and subtitles, enhancing accessibility and viewer choice

HLS quickly became a standard in the industry due to its robust performance and wide compatibility with various devices and platforms. Its adoption reshaped the streaming landscape, setting new standards for content delivery and user experience.

Standardizing streaming protocols: The emergence of Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (DASH)

DASH offers a standardized approach to adaptive bitrate streaming to ensure broad compatibility across different devices and platforms. It builds on the strengths of HLS and HDS while addressing some of their shortcomings. The benefits it offers include:

  • Efficient use of bandwidth: Optimizes bandwidth usage, providing high-quality streaming even under fluctuating network conditions

  • Support for live and on-demand streaming: Effectively handles live broadcasts and on-demand content, a testament to its versatility

  • Enhanced viewer experience: Offers seamless transitions between different quality streams, enhancing the overall viewing experience

  • Content protection: Supports various DRM systems, helping to secure content against unauthorized use

  • Customizable manifest files: Allows content providers to customize streaming experiences with advanced features like multiple audio tracks, subtitles, and more

  • Scalability: Enables efficient scaling for large audiences, which is essential for popular events or widespread content distribution

As an international standard, DASH has seen widespread adoption across various streaming services and platforms. Its universal compatibility and adaptability have made it a preferred choice for delivering high-quality, adaptive streaming experiences.

The future of HTTP streaming: Innovations and implications

The future of HTTP streaming is shaping into an exciting blend of emerging technologies and trends. With advancements like artificial intelligence-enhanced content recommendation, the integration of 5G for faster streaming, and the exploration of immersive experiences through virtual and augmented reality, HTTP streaming is set to become more efficient, interactive, and personalized.

These advancements indicate a shift toward more user-centric streaming experiences, with higher quality content such as 4K and 8K becoming standard. The evolution from simple methods like progressive download to sophisticated protocols like HLS and DASH has paved the way for these innovations. As HTTP streaming continues to evolve, adapting to new technologies and user expectations, the synergy between streaming services and platforms like PubNub will likely be a driving force in shaping the future of digital media consumption.

PubNub, with its focus on real-time application programming interfaces (APIs) and services, is well-positioned to support the next generation of HTTP streaming innovations. Contact us to discover how we can elevate your streaming capabilities and to schedule a free trial.