Streaming Media Gets SeriousBy Steven Vonder Haar | Posted 2002-07-02 Email Print
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Corporate America is discovering online audio and video aren't just for entertainment. They're earning a place in the workplace.
Entertainment may have gotten streaming media into the cubicle. But now, the technology is being used by companies to inform and train workers, fostering communication while cutting costs.
Take the case of Mercedes-Benz USA, which two years ago began making videos available online to more than 4,500 technicians in Mercedes-Benz dealerships nationwide. Courses on how to diagnose problems and train mechanics to repair them are featured, in a wide variety of topics.
Spending less than $200,000 to deploy a system based on streaming technology from Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media unit, Mercedes-Benz has saved more than $1.7 million by cutting travel and other costs involved with sending technicians to training centers.
With that success, other units at Mercedes-Benz are adopting streaming. Employment recruiting at the company's www.mercedesbenzcareers.com site, for instance, incorporates videos to promote the carmaker to prospective hires.
"Once people see what is possible with streaming, the lightbulbs start to go off," says Rick Thomas, media development and e-learning specialist for Mercedes-Benz in Montvale, N.J.
Both Microsoft's Windows Media unit and Real Networks are vying to popularize the use of streaming media for executive broadcasts. Both companies offer fundamental platforms including servers and client-side players needed to deliver audio and video content with the enterprise.
Nonetheless, online audio and video remain far from the mainstream in the corporate world.
Some companies shy away from streaming due to risks of clogging corporate networks with data-intensive audio and video applications. Others do not have the bandwidth or computing infrastructure to support mass distribution of multimedia content.
Yet practical applications for online audio and video are emerging across a range of industries. Soft-drink maker Coca-Cola Co. uses streaming to provide marketing executives access to the company's complete archive of television commercials. Williams Energy Partners produces daily news reports on the energy industry that are Webcast to its executives and partner companies. And content management software developer Vignette Corp. uses streaming to broadcast company meetings, executive speeches and other programming to its workforce.
"As a global organization, the hardest task for us is communication. Anything that we can do to improve communication will be embraced by our executives," says David Graham, director of information technology for the Austin-based Vignette, a software company that produces more than 20 hours of programming for its 1,200-employee workforce monthly.
At Seattle-based Safeco, the financial services company produces about 40 Webcasts a year for 5,000 investment advisers who recommend Safeco funds and portfolios to clients, according to Bruce Peterson, Safeco's relationship manager for financial services distribution.
Webcasts feature interviews with portfolio fund managers every quarter so investment advisers can become more familiar with the outlook of different Safeco funds. The company spends about $20,000 overall producing the content, which is presented on the Windows Media platform and draws about 300 viewers monthly, or about 6% of Safeco's target audience.
"What the investment advisers want to see is what managers are thinking," Peterson says. "They want to see the whites of their eyes, and streaming helps them do that."
More advanced multimedia applications on corporate networks today, though, do more than just paint a picture. Rather, they incorporate a variety of communications tools, such as PowerPoint presentations and chat windows, to allow two-way interaction that is integrated with the multimedia content.
At IBM, for instance, the unit that manages the development of multimedia presentations for the company's software groups integrates Java-based presentation applications developed in-house with streaming video technology from RealNetworks.
In live videoconferences, which can attract more than 2,000 corporate viewers at a time, interactive applications add value to programming, says Troy Burkman, multimedia team leader for IBM's global e-business transformation unit.
"It's another form of communication, just like e-mail or a phone conversation," Burkman says. "It helps to put a face to an executive that a worker otherwise would be unable to meet."
For companies without the internal development resources of an IBM, however, assembling a cohesive multimedia application can be a significant undertaking. The market for enterprise streaming media technology, which started gaining traction in 1999, remains highly fragmented. Despite a recent rash of consolidations among cash-strapped startups, finding one vendor who can do it all for you remains difficult.
While vendors such as Yahoo Broadcast attempt to bundle streaming technologies as a turnkey service, companies like Interactive Video Technologies, Eveo, SofTV.net and Media1st offer tools and services used in the production of multimedia applications. Others such as Virage, Convera, Artesia Technologies and Documentum sell tools designed to manage content. Content distribution networks, such as Akamai Technologies, Cable + Wireless' Digital Island unit and Speedera Networks offer network capacity to shuttle multimedia content to users without straining corporate communications systems.
For some companies, the complexity and cost of setting streaming media applications outweigh the potential benefits. At Ford Motor Co., for instance, the carmaker has used satellite systems for more than a decade to broadcast training material to dealerships. For now, the company sees little value in reshaping that training content for delivery to employees online.
"We see huge potential for the democratization of multimedia content creation over time," says Ed Sketch, director of the Ford Learning Network. "There's absolutely no reason we wouldn't want to use it, but we don't have fresh money to pour into something in which the learning payback remains unproven."