We have had severeral people ask why Netcast chose to use Windows Media rather than Quicktime or Helix Server (Real Player) to deliver these videos to you. There are different pros and cons to each media format, and hopefully we can shed a little light on the reasoning behind our choice of Windows Media format.
Real Media offers the most compatible player of all these formats, offering players for Windows, Macintosh and *nix computers. But, Real Player has both a free version and a retail version. Traditionally, the "free" version of Real Player has required registration for its use and is known to bombard its users with advertisements, which are not only annoying, but can present a security risk to your computer in the form of spyware via popup advertisements. On the bright side, Helix offers very good quality and excellent security features on the server end.
Helix Server also comes with a very high price tag just to install, and then they have a substantial perpetual charge per number of connections to a server.
PROS - Very good video, player available for any computer, secure administration
CONS - High price, "free" player very intrusive to end-user's computer
Apple has recently released its Quicktime Server as an open-source program called Darwin Streaming Server. Quicktime streaming servers operate best on an Apple OS X servers; unfortunately, we only have UNIX, Linux, and Windows servers here at Academic Computing. Although the Darwin flavor will run on both Linux and Windows machines, it does not have as many features and is not nearly as stable under full load at its OS X parent.
Quicktime and Darwin streaming servers are offered to the community for free from Apple Computer, and their player also comes in a free version. The free version is somewhat annoying to the end user, as it always asks if you want to purchase the Pro version every time you launch it. One copy of the Pro version would be required for our encoding process, here at Netcast, but the cost is nominal. Quality is good with Quicktime, but has shown to drop sharply under heavy network load.
Darwin is not as security conscious on a large network as the other two servers mentioned here, as OS X has only recently attained full Microsoft Active Directory support under their Tiger build. Protecting the copyrighted material is much more difficult with Quicktime, as network interoperation between Apple and Windows (Our storage server) has never been very robust in the security sense.
PROS: Free Server, free player is not too intrusive, good video quality
CONS: Darwin version can become choppy under load, difficult to secure copyrighted material on non-OS X server
Flash Streaming Media Server
In the future, we may look at Flash video as a possible change. Macromedia has done a lot of work and created Flash players for just about every computer out there, so we know that Flash video will work on nearly everything, but sometimes the plugin has troubles. The reason we haven't explored it further is that Adobe has recently bought out Macromedia, and we believe it will be better to wait until the dust settles before investing in a product that may be discontinued or radically altered soon. This is compounded with Adobe's high cost of licensing on this product.
Pros: Works with nearly all computers on the Internet, player freely available and downloads/updates automatically, high cost of installation
Cons: Plugins required, Linux player is shaky at times, depending on which distro being used.
Windows Media Server
So, now we come to Windows Media Server. Although we use this here at Netcast, we do not claim that it is the end-all, be-all of video streaming. Video streaming servers are only now becoming mainstream and popular with the advent of widely available broadband Internet connections.
Windows Streaming Server is a component that comes shipped with Windows Server 2003. Since we already have servers up and running under Server 2003, there was no initial cost to implement this server.
Although Quicktime and Real Player are popular in certain areas, it cannot be denied that Microsoft Windows dominates the home computer market. Every version of Windows sold in the last 5 years had Windows Media Player pre-installed on it. Since Windows comprises nearly 97% of the global computer market, Windows Media is the logical choice to support as many people as possible, right out of the box.
Our streams have also been successfully tested on a Dell Axim PDA, so Windows Media will play on a Pocket PC that has Windows Media Player - wirelessly. This is something that not even video iPods can do.
Apple users can also play Windows Media files - Flip4Mac has created a simple plugin for Quicktime that will allow Mac users to play Windows Media via their pre-installed Quicktime player.