alternative news

Crowdsourcing the Vid Chat Platform Question

September 5, 2011 By gizadev

We're considering alternatives to Ustream for our members only video chats. Right now, it works well enough for almost all viewers, and that's why we're still using it. But we are thinking about other options. We'd like to lay out the problem to the members audience (crowdsource it), to see what you think, but we also want to lay out the research we've already done and the challenges we face in considering another video chat platform.

The real problem with Ustream: is the way in which it interrupts the broadcast periodically with streaming ads (which viewers can avoid at something like $4/month). Not all users are concerned about this. Some use the 20-30 seconds to grab a refill of coffee. Others find it easy enough to follow the thread when it resumes.

There are some less real problems: or inconsisent or one-off issues that are local to one or another person's experience or machine. Problems like that, when not consisently experienced across the board by most users will always be present for someone regardless of which platform we use, and so they can't be the basis for considering other platforms. For example:

  • Speed: Some uses have reported slowness, jerkiness, or similar issuses with our current vid-chats, but since that is experienced by a tiny minority of users, it has nothing to do with Ustream itself. If we switched platforms, some others users would struggle with the same issues on the new platform.
  • Logins: With the text chat portion, some users have reported initial difficulty logging in, but that is due to minor failures to meet the requirements (the desired username is in use, the person is trying to use their Giza username and password which doesn't work, etc.). The same problems would occur in some form or another with some users regardless of which text-chat platform we chose. Also we have much more flexibility in switching text-chat platforms than video platforms. It is not required that we use the current text-chat platform in combination with the current video platform. We can mix and match.
  • Spammers: sometimes drop in and advertise their masters' wares. Ustream provides a feature for the host to block any user who is spamming the audience. Most platforms have a similar feature. So, it's just a matter of utilizing that tactic. The first time it happened, it was easy to be caught off guard. Another platform might allow more restricted access to the Giza channel, making spammers virtually non-existent, but then it would also be more challenging for some Giza users to log in. You trade ease and simplicity for security, always, in the software world.

We're completely open to other alternatives, if they meet our needed criteria:

  • Broadcasting: Broadcast a live stream from at least one host.
  • Bandwidth: Many simultaneous viewers (we need to currently have 100 or more and be able to scale up to 200, 300, and higher).
  • Recording: Recording capability (so those who don't attend the live session can view the recording later, after the hosts posts it to the member area)
  • Security: Anti-spammer strategy of some kind - a restricted channel or the ability to boot annoying chatters.
  • Compatibility: with our membership approach (it must not require that we manually manage individual subscriber accounts, yet we would prefer it restricted viewers to paid members only)
  • Feasibility: It must address the need to keep the membership system financially worthwhile for all parties (if it's costly, we either have to raise fees or let individuals pay for their own ad-free accounts)

Known alternatives: Here are the four we know about that might work:

  • Individuals: can pay Ustream currently $4/mo for an individual Ustream premium viewer account that eliminates ads.
  • Ustream: ad-free broadcasting at $499/mo for 4000 viewer hours (about 40hrs/mo for 100 viewers). This kind of price isn't sustainable at current membership rates, which would have to go up by somewhere around $5-$6/mo to pay for the added expense (we can't raise the prepaid annual fee for those who have bought a year in advance). This is more costly to users, in other words, than if they paid for a Ustream premium account for just those users that care about the ads.
  • Livestream: ad-free broadcasting at $350/mo for 3000 viewer hours (about 30hrs/mo for 100 viewers). They have a free version, but it's ad supported just like Ustream, with the same kind of streaming ads. This still would require raising monthly membership fees by maybe $4-$5/mo for monthly subscriptions.
  • Justin.TV: looks free for the moment, but a) whether they can handle the bandwidth we need for a full vid-chat audience would remain to be seen through implementing it as a live solution and just accepting a return to Ustream if Justin fails to perform, b) whether all the features we need are there (like recording - we'd hate to lose that feature) needs to be examined, and c) eventually they'll go to an ad-supported vs. paid approach simply because all such services do, or have to, to survive given the expense of video streaming. If they remain free, they'll never be able to deliver reliable service at the level we need forever.

So here's the thing: if you have something we haven't thought of, we'd love to hear it. Remember, the criteria are important to us. We can't just "go with Skype" for instance, because Skype doesn't meet all our criteria. You have to manually connect individuals via answering or placing calls, and then mute them and hide their video, so even w. some of the neat "call a group" features, it's just not feasible for a 100+ person broadcast. It doesn't do any good to go out and randomly try things (e.g. "what about youtube?"), because those things don't even claim to meet the need we're describing. But we are convinced there are probably options that do meet our needs that we don't know about and couldn't find in the initial round of research. You may be using such a solution yourself or have seen it used.

The reason we chose ustream in the first place is that, when we needed to get up and running, the business developer had just attended a conference broadcast through Ustream, and it went very well. Recordings were up later that week. So we had a working example. Further research indicated it's the most widely used platform to do what we're doing, by far, and bar none. That means it's widely supported, has a lot of the bugs and kinks worked out (all software will always have bugs and kinks, but there's a process to working out the initial ones), and isn't a brand new, possibly fly-by-night solution that might evaporate - or the servers go down - making it unavailable on the day of a scheduled event. So far, even with its flaws, it has done the job for most of us.

Keep in mind, we probably won't answer each individual comment on this post, but we'll certainly take what you say into account. If you've got a workable idea, please share it.

At the same time, incidentally, we're working on choices of platform for a planned upcoming panel discussion that requires these same kind of features but with 5-6 simultaneous broadcasters in different locations (multiple hosts and a technical moderator). We have a couple of solutions in testing right now, but would certainly love to find more.

In the meantime, thanks for understanding that perfection is never reached, but is certainly a goal in all our interactions with the Giza Death Star community.