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Web video for enterprise purposes

Companies are at last beginning to wake up to the potential of web video as their digital assets, viewing them not just as administrative overhead, but as real revenue generators; however, can technology keep up as several offerings are examined.

Until recently, video on the Web conjured up images of much-touted but decidedly disappointing events such as the first Victoria Secret's online fashion show or last year's overaccessed NetAid concerts. But online video's questionable reputation is slowly changing. One reason is that Web video is becoming increasingly pervasive and at least a smidgen more reliable. Another reason is that a number of service companies have emerged on the scene to help corporations implement Web video.

ABC News, C-Span and Discovery Communications have all incorporated a bit of the newfangled interactive viewing into their sites. And they're not alone. A quick spin around the Web now finds video in some of the unlikeliest places. Healtheatre.com, for instance, is making a business of selling health-related video content to corporations for use in internal training and as a means to beef up their public-facing Web sites. All of these companies are looking for the sales and marketing advantage Web video adds to a site.

Even so, saying you want to add video to your Web site or your corporate intranet and actually getting video on your Web site are two different things.

According to Michael Moon, president of Gistics, a research and consulting firm in Larkspur, Calif., that focuses exclusively on media asset management, it requires a tremendous amount of technological prowess, as well as the right products, people and infrastructure.

"There are three major problems with video: you have to get it into a storage system, catalog it and make it searchable - and it's brute force on that last leg, because those metadata tags have to be entered by hand," Moon says, referring to the keywords, or tags, that are associated with a site's content. "But once you get through that process, video content is transformed into media assets, which have direct economic value - they can be used to sell stuff or can be sold themselves."

That last commerce-intensive element is why a wide variety of businesses are putting video online, despite the hassle.

And, as is always the case in emerging markets, there are several technology providers looking to deliver products that can get companies most of the way there. These include MediaSite, which is developing interactive video products; Virage, which helps businesses publish, manage and distribute video over the Internet or corporate intranets; and relative-newcomer Excalibur Technologies, which will soon be swallowed by Intel and is best known for its text-based search and retrieval technology.

In addition, start-up Taalee recently jumped into the fray with its so-called digital media search engine, as well as a content indexing and cataloging service for both video and audio assets. These offerings were announced in May, and the company has signed up one customer so far - Redband Broadcasting, a San Francisco start-up that provides audio distribution services.

As for focus, MediaSite, whose technology actually sprang from a government-sponsored research project at Carnegie Mellon University, is concentrating the bulk of its energies on entertainment opportunities. To date, it has signed up Time Warner Cable's NY1 News site and WCBS-TV, along with several online video syndication companies. San Mateo, Calif.-based Virage has been highly successful in this space as well, having garnered such big-name clients as ABC News, C-Span, PBS and Turner Broadcasting.

According to Carlos Montalvo, vice president of marketing at Virage, these companies hope in the short term to use video to extend their formidable brands to the Web by letting consumers access their favorite television shows, or at least clips from them, online. PBS, for example, will soon be making The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Julia Child's beloved cooking show available on its site. But that's only step one.

"Being able to search for the exact clip or segment you want is what these companies are willing to offer their viewers right now, and they believe that's a very powerful way to build online mind share," Montalvo says. "However, their real goal is to make video both pervasive and profitable on the Web, which means creating additional video content that can be charged for, disseminated and used for marketing purposes."

Virage also is making inroads in the corporate space, having recently announced that it has Microsoft and Nortel Networks as clients. As Gistics' Moon points out, appealing as all this may sound, there are some nasty back-end issues that companies must consider. Video, after all, is a storage and bandwidth hog. And if clips aren't already in a digital format, they must be encoded. The need for these additional services isn't lost on the vendors, of course. Virage, for one, has both an encoding service and a hosted version of its product offering. The video storage and distribution components of the service are handled by partners Digital Island and InterVU.

Loudeye Technologies, the brainchild of ex-Microsoft executive Martin Tobias, is also making a substantial and successful run for this subset of the video management market. The Seattle start-up has built a portfolio of services that includes encoding both audio and video files in an astounding array of formats, as well as output and delivery options through partners such as Akamai Technologies, Digital Island and InterVU. Though the company already has clients such as Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard, which use its services for corporate training, Loudeye's vice president of marketing, Doug Schulze, says interest in video is increasing dramatically, especially among companies in the film industry.

"Napster has not only woken up the major record labels, it has also gotten the attention of the film industry," Schulze says, referring to the hot peer-to-peer music distribution service. "Those guys are determined to control the way what has happened in online music plays out in their world, so they're trying to get ahead of the game in terms of digitizing their media assets and figuring ways of making money off them. They're looking at the Web not as competition, but as a supplemental market." Loudeye already counts Warner Bros. among its customers.

Boost from Intel

Of all the media asset players, Excalibur has been the slowest on the draw in terms of garnering market share, having only accumulated about 24 customers for its Screening Room product since its inception more than two years ago. However, the company should not be discounted, particularly considering its pending merger with Intel and the considerable market muscle and respect it has enjoyed in the text-search field.

According to Daniel C. Agan, vice president of corporate marketing at Excalibur, the company that springs from this union will be a full-service technology supermarket geared toward helping businesses get their so-called media assets online with minimal pain. In addition to offering Screening Room in a hosted model, storage and distribution services will also be on the aisle.

"We believe the market at large is crying out for this type of solution," Agan says. "What we envision is end-to-end options that take the infrastructure burden of getting all the media out to the Web off our customers."

Though underlying skepticism has haunted the digital asset management market since it first surfaced, its time may at last have come. According to Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., companies are at last beginning to wake up to the potential of their digital assets, viewing them not just as administrative overhead, but as real revenue generators. And, at the same time, the technology is finally reaching a point where it can deliver on the promise.

"Homegrown, piecemeal streaming solutions have frustrated content providers and held back Internet video," Schwartz says. "But now these integrated platforms are emerging that let content providers stop experimenting, so they can actually monetize streaming.