I think we may have lost a project at work today: a project to do streaming video. It’s not really our fault; our offering looked just like everyone else’s streaming video.

The problem is that our competition isn’t everyone else’s streaming video.First let’s look at the hurdles. No matter which option you pick, some percentage of your audience is going to have to download or install something. That all but eliminates Real, since I don’t think even Woodward and Bernstein could successfully track down the link to their free player every time.

Windows Media Player is easier, but won’t necessarily run on some older versions of Windows. An overwhelming number of people have Windows XP now, but not everyone does. How many hundreds of millions of copies of Windows 98 did Microsoft sell? Do you think all of those people have thrown them away yet? No. Those people will have to download and install something.

But Media Player will leave some Macintoshes in the cold. Do you want to do that if your target audience might include schools?

QuickTime is the best cross-platform solution, but again, Windows users will have to download and install something.

OK, so you got it installed. Prepare thyself for thrilling, 15 frame-per-second 160×120 video!

Translation: Video the size of a postage stamp that moves about as fast as your mailman.

Theoretically you can stream bigger and faster video, but it’s going to be jerkier if you do. There’ll be dropped frames, artifacts, and the audio may drop out. And what’s it look like when you send DVD-sized 720×480 video? Well, considering a lot of people run their monitors at 1024×768, it makes letterboxing look good. It’s not full-screen like it is when you pop a DVD into your DVD drive.

And that’s precisely the problem. The competition isn’t other people who stream video. The competition is DVDs. Computers are digital, right? So why does its video look worse than the oldest, most worn-out VHS tape at the video rental place? And why do I have to jump through so many hoops in order to play it? On a DVD, I hit the "menu" button and then I hit "enter" or "play." (Also keep in mind that some people can’t even figure out how to do that. I’m serious. I dated a girl once whose parents couldn’t figure out a DVD player, so they had to get their 15-year-old son to come hit the buttons for them.)

And that, I think, is the reason you still don’t see tons and tons of streaming video on the Web, in spite of the high availability of DSL and cable modems in the United States, the abundance of cheap bandwidth, and the cheapness of the server software (free, in the case of QuickTime, and included with Windows Server in the case of Media Player).