thePlatform Responds to Surge In Web Video with New System

Ian Blaine, CEO, thePlatform

Ian Blaine, CEO, thePlatform

February 3, 2010 – thePlatform has introduced a completely re-engineered approach to publishing video assets that taps the design efficiencies of service-oriented architecture (SOA) to meet the increasingly complex requirements of today's Web media operations.

With a decade of supplying white label Web video publishing services under its belt, thePlatform's CEO Ian Blaine said the company has applied what it has learned about customer needs to more efficiently address new operational environments where large staffs of editors, producers and administrators are coordinating management of vast video libraries across multiple destination points tied to mobile, TV and PC access. "We're resetting the bar today," Blaine said.

thePlatform's mpx Beta release, offered at no charge to existing clients, is the first step in what is envisioned as a phased-in replacement of the modules comprising the company's long-standing mps (media publishing system) platform. As explained by company officials, mpx Beta includes an entirely new and intuitive console for managing video assets; dramatically simplified and faster processes to publish large video libraries across the Web, mobile devices, and set-top-boxes, and advanced personalization features.

"In 2010 and beyond, consumers will be watching more video with longer durations across an evolving ecosystem of devices," Blaine noted. "Our customers, in turn, want to reach larger audiences to drive revenues and increase brand loyalty. mpx will enable them to address this growing opportunity in the years ahead."

Where, in the past, even the larger entities served by thePlatform had relatively small operations tied to video publishing, often involving just one individual and a fairly limited library of long-form programming, today's staff sizes, the volume of content and the multiplicity of monetization opportunities have made it difficult for customers to work with a system that was designed for simpler times. "We're known for taking on the most complex customers," said Marty Roberts, vice president of marketing at thePlatform. "But the knock on thePlatform has always been about ease of use. With mpx Beta we've found a really nice balance making complex things much simpler."

This applies not only to execution on ingestion, asset management, multi-device formatting, advertising models and all the other tasks associated with publishing video on the Web. It also applies to how customers model the wide range of applications available through thePlatform and its third-party partners to manage the video publishing lifecycle, Roberts noted.

"We're introducing a brand new software development kit," he said. "Everything, all the APIs (applications program interfaces) now have complete documentation with sample codes and scripts, and we're using standardized APIs. So customers can come in and enhance their use of thePlatform's services in many different ways.

"Everything we do with a file we allow customers to do programmatically," he explained. "No one else in the market provides as thorough a software development kit for engineers and partners to work with."

Beyond ease of use and customizability, the advances introduced by thePlatform provide the performance controls essential to reaching a "five 9s" carrier-class level of performance, Roberts said. Until now, whereas most providers of Web publishing services as well as home-grown systems focused on a three-9s level of reliability, thePlatform was touting four 9s.

"The market has evolved to where customers expect carrier-class reliability," he noted, adding that as a unit of Comcast thePlatform is especially sensitive to that expectation.  "Five 9s requires a level of investment most Internet companies aren't willing to make. We now have a system that will be able to meet that need."

The new developments at thePlatform won a strong endorsement from Adrian Drury, principal analyst for media, broadcast and telecoms at Ovum. "The premium Web video market is growing but the supply chain is becoming more complex," Drury said. "thePlatform is continuing to move with the times with the launch of mpx Beta and mpx Dev Kit."

He said the mpx Beta system "delivers important user interface and content management enhancements that will help content owners and programmers respond to a growing number of channels and platforms, and enable a wider range of non-technical editors and service managers to use thePlatform's ingest and publishing tools.

"As for the mpx Dev Kit," he added, "if there is a truth in the OVP (online video publishing) market, it is that the technical and business requirements of no two media companies are the same. The Dev Kit makes thePlatform's ten years of experience in this market available as a library of APIs, and this creates some exciting opportunities for process automation and service innovation."

Several of mpx Beta's capabilities represent a marked departure from the conventional approaches to managing and publishing video, Roberts said. This initial Beta version of mpx was designed with three core features that are sufficiently important to justify getting the system into customers' hands now, without waiting for additional features to be completed, he added.

"The first thing we focused on is a really intuitive interface for efficiently managing large libraries – 100,000 titles or more," he explained. "We're making it easier to operate in such environments by providing incremental features that add up to having a more efficient work flow."

For example, he said, mpx Beta allows customers to upload multiple media files simultaneously and easily distribute video to Web sites, mobile phones and other IP devices with one-click publishing. All of this is performed on a user interface that presents a full list of all content assets, their usage history, what's in queue for imminent airing and other essential data along with a window for playback preview and the task menus that allow the administrator to activate all the service resources required to format and deliver assets to the specifications set by each end point.

"The second area of focus reflects the maturation of the market," he continued. "Customers now have dedicated video producers whose entire job is to publish video to mobile phones or for over-the-top delivery to set-top boxes. We now have editors who come in and manage discrete sections of the Web site – like sports sections. We have administrators whose sole function is to sit above the workflow and make sure everything is efficiently managed.
 
"So we wanted to allow optimized views for managing workflows," he continued. "Maybe I'm an editor and my job is just to manage action clips. So I can come in and set up my specific parameters, not just by action categories but by duration of segments and other requirements.
When I get the perfect look and feel I can add a shortcut or bookmark what I've set up, so when I log in I can see this exact view. Or I can jump back to look at everything. The system really allows each customer to personalize interface for their exact workflow."

A third area of focus is the concept of smart publishing profiles where the system streamlines the publishing process through a non-linear approach that considers a video's destination point first – in effect, reversing the common workflow. This methodology automates the required steps for video management, including file creation, transcoding, thumbnail generation and more, Roberts said.

"If you look at our old system or competitors' systems, they take a linear approach to video management where they upload a file, add some metadata, add policy, encode, etc.," he explained. "Our new publishing profile starts with the destination in mind first. There are a lot of smart things we can do to optimize work flow by considering the set-top box or mobile we're publishing to."

Demonstrating an example of how an editor would interact with the console in the instance of a home page destination where a preview image and two thumbnails of different sizes are required, Roberts showed a hypothetical case where one requirement called for a Flash file of certain dimensions. "Let's dig into the medium bandwidth required for a Flash video," he said, clicking on the resource that supplies that information. With another mouse click the system sets up the workflow for the administrator to generate that medium bandwidth Flash video.

"Now we go out and see if the content file actually exists with an encoding profile of 640 x 352 Flash Medium," he continued. "If it does, we move that file out to the storage server. But maybe we don't have that Flash file. So we move to step 2 where we're going to find the mezzanine file. When we find that file we're going to encode that using the medium Flash profile and automatically push it out to our CDN (content delivery network)."

And if there's no mezzanine file available, he added, the system will look for the highest bit-rate version of the content file and encode that. "Each one of these files has a workflow that can find a source file and convert it into whatever the home page player needs to run efficiently," he said. "By looking at what's expected at the destination points we get really smart about how we process these profiles."

Development of mpx has been a painstaking process consuming the time of 70 percent of the company's engineering staff for the past two years, Roberts said. Introduction of the revamped platform comes none too soon in light of the powerful surge underway in use of the Web for distribution of long-form programming.

Even the recession didn't noticeably slow things down. "We expected like everyone else that we'd see a drop off in overall business," he said. "We didn't."

Notwithstanding the impact the economy had on some of thePlatform's customers' bottom lines, the company benefitted from two anti-recessionary trends. "The growth in individual consumption of online video and the fact that the audience for online video got much bigger was one factor," he said. "The second thing was customers were able to monetize more than before. Broadband video advertising is one of the only sectors that grew over the past two years. Our customers were really running a healthy business last year, and we're downstream from that net effect."

Now, coming out of recession, "I've never seen our customers more excited about what they have in front of them," he said. "All of them are seeing their viewing times go up. A couple of years ago, seven minutes was a good average session. Now we're seeing averages way north of 20 minutes. And with some long-form content we're seeing 40-minute average viewing cycles."

Plans calling for sending video to new destinations, adding more premium content and accommodating more advertising are abundant, he said. "Of course, the challenge is there's never been more complexity," he added. "There aren't two places where we push video that have the same profile. There are always different formats and metadata requirements. The interesting thing around bigger audiences and libraries is reliability is becoming key for our customers. Used to be customers just cared about if the system worked; today it's does it work at high load and at super scale."