At this year’s Streaming Media East in New York, a keynote delivered by Net- flix’s Chris Fetner and a panel of creatives and tech engineers working on original
productions introduced me to the expression
“pioneer tax.” This refers to the higher expenses incurred around bleeding-edge technology
projects. These higher costs can be due to the
cost of equipment or resources necessary to
produce a project.
While Netflix’s panel revolved largely around
HDR (High Dynamic Range) and discussion of
how different it is for creative directors to envision the final product compared to SDR (
Standard Dynamic Range), the pioneer tax technology that came to my mind is WebRTC. In short,
WebRTC stands as the only real-time communication standard that browsers can utilize, especially for low-latency live streaming.
In my work, WebRTC represents the first true
“Flash replacement” for real-time video. In 2002,
Flash introduced RTMP (Real-Time Messaging
Protocol) and low-latency video to web browsers.
Now, 16 years later, there’s not yet a consistent
implementation of a real-time stack or access
to capture devices across the major browsers.
And that’s where the pioneer tax comes in—
developing a solution with WebRTC is problematic at best. One of my clients recently approached me with an entire first-generation
product designed to run only on Chrome, because supporting more browsers would have
been expensive and not consistently compatible. As a video solutions architect, I am selective
about which tech stacks I’ll use to develop. This
is mainly because the time investment for me to
learn new programming APIs can be significant
and adds cost that clients are not usually willing
to pay. So far, WebRTC is the only game in town
that will (hopefully) be viable across all browsers
at some not-so-distant point in the future.
One of my biggest frustrations with WebRTC
is the lack of current, well-maintained online
resources. Google searches for WebRTC examples will frequently return code using draft APIs
written 3 or more years ago. WebRTC.org has
working examples, but even its “Getting Started” ( go2sm.com/webrtcstart) tutorial requires
Chrome 47 or above, and it makes no mention of
what’s compatible with other Web RTC browsers.
Another source of potential pioneer taxation
is determining which WebRTC server technology you’ll use to connect real-time users to each
other. Commercial and open source WebRTC
platform offerings have come and gone as larger tech companies acquired the teams that built
those solutions. While Janus Gateway is currently an open source favorite among WebRTC developers, Red5 and Wowza are among the only
media servers that offer more universal transmuxing to various input and output formats.
The good news is that WebRTC and related
APIs are becoming more widely available across
browsers. A quick visit to caniuse.com and searching “webrtc” or “getusermedia” will show that
most of the major browsers are supporting common APIs. Despite this availability, I’m still seeing a dearth of WebRTC applications online. To
my knowledge, major social media platforms
haven’t released WebRTC for any live streaming
applications, relying instead on other RTMP/
RTP ingests and DASH or HLS playback streams.
I hope that companies are just in the middle of
longer development cycles for next-gen products, and that we’ll see more implementation of
If this all sounds bleak, WebRTC’s unique capabilities are worth noting. WebRTC’s transport
layer is RTP-based and able to use UDP as well
as TCP for video and audio transmission. UDP
allows for packet loss and lower latency. (RTMP,
however, can only use TCP, and as such can be
a source of higher latency in the publish/play-back chain.) WebRTC offers AES encryption on
audio, video, and data channels. WebRTC can
work with other APIs to capture camera, microphone, and screen display—enabling companies
to build better videoconferencing and webinar
platforms. You’ll just have to find some extra resources and time to invest in the effort in order
to offset the pioneer tax required to push implementation of an emerging technology. Devs who
follow in your footsteps may not thank you, but
they will benefit from the path you forge.
Robert Reinhardt ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder of VideoRx
and is internationally regarded as an expert on multimedia
application development and online video, particularly in HTML5,
iOS, Flash, AVC/H.264, and HEVC/H.265.
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