Could live P2P video be the antidote to YouTube dross?
Craptown Utd gets its own TV station
A British company is aiming to stake a claim on some of the New World of online video's unexplored territory with Selfcast, a website and application that allow people to broadcast live to an unlimited audience using a bog standard broadband connection.
The system, a leap forward from flaky webcam streams, was developed by London-based peer to peer development outfit RawFlow and has been "soft" [read "cheap"] launching with a round of press meetings.
Uses are easy to imagine. Any event where live TV excels there's potential for Selfcast. Craptown United, with too small an audience for Sky to bother with, could broadcast to a couple of dozen supporters who can't make the game.
Genuine unsigned musicians - unlike "struggling" Tooting cellar chanteuse Sandi Thom, who was launched with a carefully plotted PR assault at the height of mainstream media's fascination with MySpace last year - could invite their embryonic international fanbase to watch a live gig.
RawFlow is itself steering clear of porn - the first killer application of most new web technologies - but cannily won't rule out whitelabelling Selfcast.
The technology is based on RawFlow's ICD (Intelligent Content Distribution) video delivery system, which it whitelabels to broadcasters, telcos, and large corporations. ICD is just one of many of the newer breed of "hybrid" peer-to-peer networking technologies, which aim to combine the efficiency of chunks of data flying round BitTorrent-style with the better quality and availability that a central hub - as used in streaming - can help guarantee.
Various recipes for the same brew underpin Joost, Babelgum, Channel 4 on demand, Sky Anytime, and BBC iPlayer.
The ICD background of Selfcast is platform-independent, and the Selfcast application's licensed under GPL 2. "People are copying us, not the other way around," Dissing said.
RawFlow was founded in 2002 and is backed by £2m from VC outfit Benchmark Capital. RawFlow CEO Mikkel Dissing said: "There are so many variables, and there's no substitute for being hammered in the real world like [ICD] has."
RawFlow's biggest test so far was a live showing of Chinese New Year celebrations to 100,000 viewers, though as with BitTorrent, if everything goes to plan, it should become more stable as more people join the broadcast.
Like iPlayer, Selfcast uses the Windows Media codec, so Mac and open source fanciers are in the cold until Microsoft sorts out its Silverlight cross-platform browser plug-in.
Selfcast users can broadcast live, or drop in pre-recorded clips using its noddy interface. If you ask it to, Selfcast will scrape email and IM contacts to build an invite list for your show. The obligatory plans for MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo widgets [sorry precious, Facebook Applications] are in place too.
The blogosphere recently got into a froth over Microsoft-backed UK firm Skinkers, which is trying to flog a live broadcast peer-to-peer system similar to ICD. It was erroneously reported as a "YouTube killer", which sent web savants into a tailspin of Google vs Microsoft wittering. In truth, like RawFlow's ICD, it was aimed at businesses and broadcasters.
The parallels between Selfcast and YouTube are harder to dismiss, but the live element ought to drive more forethought and quality from users. The tedious talking heads who dominate YouTube's original content will doubtless pitch up on Selfcast, though armchair pundits will probably find that none of their friends will bother to make an appointment to view their soliloquy. The posterity incentive for California teens to record their musings on why George W Bush is such a douchebag is gone too: shows disappear from Selfcast as soon as the broadcast is over.
Copyright owners are now wise to the freewheeling approach to intellectual property that helped score YouTube's founders a $1.6bn cheque from Google 18 months after they launched. Selfcast makes the usual noises about working with copyright owners to clamp down on infringement, and blocking IP addresses of repeat offenders. It also adopts the standard "neutral carrier" stance favoured by Google, ISPs, and their libel lawyers.
Soothing words may prove unnecessary: the average web video pirate is very precious about his bandwidth, so the appeal of repeatedly broadcasting episodes of the Daily Show over Selfcast is diminished. You can't afford to waste precious upload Kilobits smashing the pigopolist system when you're one mana point off ascending to the next druid level. Or something. For the record, Selfcast uploads at about 250Kb/s.
Of course, if the site does take off, the ambulance chasers will start paying attention, so if users start broadcasting their own Premiership football shows, for example, RawFlow will have a legal problem to deal with. The Selfcast interface makes it trivial to drop in clips grabbed from TV, and quality is better than YouTube.
When we spoke to Dissing in July, RawFlow's business model for Selfcast was foggy at best (file under the speculative "if we build it, they will come" approach to online advertising). Earlier this week, however, it bought Aggregator TV, on online video concern backed by Intel which focuses on subscriptions and payment systems.
Dissing said: "The whole ethos of Aggregator was that even small or medium sized content providers should be able to make money from the content they provide, this is the ethos and future of Selfcast also."
It may be that for RawFlow, Selfcast is more a showcase for its distribution technology than a serious business in its own right, but it seems serious about attracting quality live shows. Selfcast is here. ®