Enhanced E Books — The Evolution of Reading

The notion of enhanced E Books has been around for years, but it is the proliferation of E Book readers, and more specifically tablet devices like the iPad and the unreleased Samsung Galaxy Tab that will truly transform the way some people view, consume and read books.  Many may ask what the heck an enhanced E Book is.  The definition is still being worked out in the publishing industry, and the formats are certainly far from being defined.  But the premise is simple:  include additional links, data, video, audio, or even software to “enhance” a book above and beyond the typical text you would see on the screen.

So curling up with a good book in bed can also include all kinds of extras if and when you want: an audio track of the author reading the prose, movie trailers, videos of book critics or additional explanations, links to related articles, games or contests, or even promotions for book signings or giveaways.  Some might find it sad that we as a society want to merge a good book with mass media, but I find it very exciting.  And I do believe that it will eventually lead to more book sales, can actually spur people to read more by making it a little more fun, and will certainly assist with the dissemination of information.

Devices like the Kindle and Nook do enable some enhanced features to be added to E Books, but the real game changers are the highly successful Apple iPad and all of the new tablets based on the Android platform set to be hitting retailers over the next 12 months.  These devices can really bring all of these other enhancements to life and provide a broadband connection for the ease of serving media elements.

The current trend is for the publishers to develop an app for the enhanced E Book, and the app will be device specific (iPhone, iPad, Galaxy Tab, etc).  Of course this adds to the complexity and cost for publishers.  As more and more of these devices hit the market, decisions will have to be made to determine what apps they will provide and what devices they will support.  Standardization will be difficult as each device will have it’s own specs and SDK.

Enhanced E Book apps can be very large in size as well if a great deal of video or audio is embedded in the app.  The market will trend in the future to try to limit the size of the apps for both magazine and E Book apps.  The hard drives on tablets are not very large and really are not designed to hold vast amounts of data.  Some of the apps for magazines and E Books I have seen recently are over 1GB in size.  Think about it….that means that if I have a 16GB iPad, I could only have 16 books or magazines on it at a time!  It will be imperative that publishers think about this as they are developing their E Book Apps.  Embedding large video or audio files in the apps will not be sustainable over time.  Utilizing a media publishing platform like Castfire can enable these apps to serve media content to the Enhanced E Books and can publish audio or video to the multiple different devices you are targeting. These apps should be designed so that as much data as possible is coming from the cloud so that the file size is minimized.

Publishers really seem to be rushing to develop and nurture the enhanced E Book market right now.  I don’t think anyone knows what they will look like even in the next 12 months, but I know that I’m excited to read, listen and watch them as they rapidly come to market.

How to Scale Syndication

Syndication in online video can take many forms:
  • Audience driven, viral syndication
  • Portal distribution like Youtube, Facebook and Myspace
  • Licensed content
  • Revenue/Inventory share partners
  • Platform sydication, generally into the Living Room, iTunes or Mobile

An area that rarely receives consideration is the amount of time and effort that it takes to continuously produce content that adheres to the rules of each syndication method. It is actually quite insane when you think of it.

For instance, on most of the major portals, there are ToS that define what type of content, advertising, and cross promotion that you can include within your content. The method of advertising is quite different between flash playback and distribution on Android, Roku or iTunes; the latter three requiring ads to be stitched into the video file itself. In licensing deals, branding, bumpers and advertising may have to be removed. This list can go on and on.

All of this prior to even transcoding to all the different formats required. Between h.264, h.263, Apple’s http adaptive, ogg and WebM, you may as well hire a good size team just to handle what happens between editing the video and reaching the audience.  The process often does not scale well, leaving Business Development teams frustrated and production staff overwhelmed.

This is a key area in which Castfire shines: complicated syndication strategies. We enable the Business Development team to take chances while the production team can easily manage all of the curve balls. We have an extensive solution for constructing business rules for each of your syndication partners that immediately apply to your entire library. These rules extend far beyond a feed, embed and access control list.

They enable publishers to change bumpbers, branding, ad servers, analytics, players and even CDN’s used for delivery. It enables the Business Development team to experiment with different revenue models without having to hire additional production staff.

Coming up with new ideas for syndication is easy. Scaling the production of them is not.

Apple’s HTTP Adaptive Protocol

In June of 2009, Apple introduced a new video format that provides adaptive bitrate over http.  If those words don’t sound like they should go together – or in that order – don’t worry. It’s actually not as complex as it sounds and is a really cool technology.

Adaptive bitrate allows the quality of the video to adjust depending on your internet connection speed. The faster the connection, the better quality the video will be. While it has been executed in a number of ways on the desktop, this is the first implementation for mobile devices. Additionally, the implementation uses a standard http connection – a very basic building block of the internet. This protocol is very easy to scale and requires no additional software.

While the adaptive bitrate does have advantages, there are three specific disadvantages for publishers:

  1. It requires quite a bit of transcoding, as you need to transcode a minimum of 5 times per episode. If you chose to do separate profiles for iPad and iPhone, there are 12 or more transcodes required.
  2. The only tool Apple provided for transcoding is a command line tool for OSX.
  3. The spec is quite unfriendly to advertising!

Castfire utilizes a custom transcoding engine and queue that distributes the work across many different processors and servers. We are able to quickly divide the workload across available machines to process as quickly as possible. The queue enables each client and output profile to maintain a different priority to ensure that the most important episodes and profiles are completed as quickly as possible. Since Castfire acts as the origin server for your CDN, there is no need to be transferring all of the files between servers or to your desktop – it is completely automated.

Rather than tinker with the encoder from Apple, we built our own encoder for our LAMP infrastructure. We have now transcoded over 1600 hours of http adaptive video — almost 2 years worth — using our custom encoding solution. We are extremely happy with the quality and the performance of it.

Lastly, we have utilized our existing infrastructure, that enables ad insertion from any VAST enabled ad server, to allow publishers to monetize ads in the http adaptive format. Clients like CBS Mobile and the Washington Redskins are using this today to monetize videos across all of the iOS devices.

If you would like to view the http adaptive profiles from some Castfire customers, check out:

Foreign Keys

API integrations are a major focus for Castfire, with many of our clients never logging into the CMS to manage their solutions. Our REST based API allows for full control of the platform from website CMS’s, digital asset managers or backend systems. This follows with our philosophy of handling all of the details around publishing audio and video  allowing you, the publisher, to focus on content and audience. The API currently has 37 different methods to have complete control over your publishing solution.  To make the process of integration even easier, we are releasing foreign key functionality.

If you are a developer, you can skip directly to our API docs.

If you are not a developer, here is a non-technical description:

You have two books in your library and you have numbered them:

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

You always know that book #1 is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and #2 is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  These, in essence, are your primary keys. They are unique to both books in your library.

Now, you loan your books to your friend, Tom, who has a library of 1,000 books. He also numbers his books from 1 to 1,000. However, books #1 and #2 are:

  1. The Tower Treasure
  2. The House on the Cliff

If you were to speak with Tom about book #1 (his primary key), he would think you are speaking about The Tower Treasure and not Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – quite confusing. You would have to remember when speaking to Tom, your books are #1001 and #1002 in his library.

To you, #1 is your primary key and #1001 is your foreign key. To Tom, #1001 is his primary key and #1 is his foreign key. It gets hard to manage!

What if Tom always knew, when speaking with you, that your book #1  is actually his book #1001?  And your book #2 is actually his book #1002? It would make life a lot easier as you don’t have to keep track of his keys.

That is – in very basic terms – what we have released in our API. Instead of using our show_id (our primary key) when talking to Castfire via the API, you can use your primary key to reference the show. It makes integrations with 3rd party content management and digital asset managements systems even easier. There are less keys to be stored in your system.

I am impressed if you have made it this far! This may sound esoteric, however, it lowers the burden of system integration a great bit allowing for faster implementations. If you have questions regarding our API, feel free to contact support (support@castfire.com, web).

HTML5 and Embedding

A key feature for the distribution of audio and video online has been the viral embedding of players. It is extremely common for flash players to provide embed codes for users to copy and place into their site of choice – blog, website, myspace, etc. To enable this, websites – generally speaking – allow for users to paste embed codes and they will render them correctly. However, sites often limit this just to flash embeds and not javascript for safety precautions.

The swf for flash contains all of the necessary components for the video: monetization, analytics, control bars, adaptive playback, social features and more. These are key components to enable successful publishing. At Castfire, we support dozens of ad servers, different analytics providers, player options and more. They are considered basic requirements for an online video platform (OVP).

HTML5 essentially provides 2 new elements – <audio> and <video> – to allow the playback of the media rather than implementing flash for the playback. To add functionality (styled control bars, advertising, analytics, etc), javascript and css are key. There are some incredible examples of HTML5, javascript and css appearing that rival – from a user perspective – flash, such as the SublimeVideo from Jilion, Vimeo, or Kaltura. However, the big break down comes from viral sharing – it would be impossible to implement them across sites that do not allow for the user to post javascript and css.

Destination sites are migrating to HTML5 implementations in preparation for the iPad. However, the industry as a whole will have to coordinate the ability for users to share HTML5 audio and video across publishing platforms. This is extremely important functionality to enable prior to large scale launches of HTML5 audio and video.