According to a piece in GigaOM, YouTube wants to make its player on mobile devices and internet-connected TVs adapt to the strength of your internet connection, reducing buffering time.  YouTube did this with the desktop player last year, and buffering was reduced by 20 percent.  Adaptive bitrate streaming allows the player to decide which quality setting is best and can toggle between them based on internet speed and other factors.

Why Adaptive Streaming?

Adaptive bitrate streaming is where the quality of the video changes and it does not have to buffer or start the whole thing over to do so.  No doubt, studies like the one Conviva recently conducted, where they found that issues such as buffering led to a $2.16 billion dollar loss in online video’s potential earnings, is the reason for YouTube’s need to change its player across all devices to adaptive bitrate streaming.  But there’s a problem with that too in many cases.  Back when I wrote an article based on that Conviva study, we had a comment from Mike MacNamara, the CTO of NextShoot, saying:

We tried adaptive bitrate streaming for a while but people either thought the video looked awful or something was wrong with the encoding! There’s not much point in shooting at 1080 and doing all that grading when you’re playing back with blocks the size of thumbnails!

No doubt, it’s frustrating to watch something look good, then go back to bad, then go to kind of good, then decide to stick with the lowest quality possible and there’s nothing you can do about it at times.

GigaOM’s Janko Roettgers talked to YouTube Mobile and TV engineering head Andy Berkheimer and he said:

‘The new player is keeping close eyes on the speed and health of your internet connection…It’s continuously monitoring the bandwidth and the throughput it is seeing…’ adding that it also keeps tabs on the size of your player. Are you watching a video in full screen? Then you can expect YouTube to send you more bits, as long as your connection is fast enough.

A very important point also made by the article is that this is nothing new, and that Netflix and Hulu have been doing this for awhile.  But they specialize in long-form content and, in the case of Netflix, they start with a lower bitrate and work their way up, and the process takes a minute or so.  But with YouTube, which is mostly short-form, that initial bad quality can have people turning off the video in an instant (the Conviva study says people wouldn’t wait 2 seconds).

A couple of challenges for YouTube on mobile is that people on the move will be hitting different cell towers during their viewing time.  And the challenges increase when it comes to different countries around the world which have different average speeds.  The next-generation TVs being introduced this year, on the other hand, will nearly all be adaptive streaming sets.