Streaming video changed the internet forever

It’s 1995, I’m trying to watch a video on the internet. To watch the trailer for Paul WS Anderson’s long-awaited film adaptation, I typed the longest, most complicated URL I’ve ever seen into AOL’s web browser. Mortal Kombat. I found it in an issue Electronic Gaming Monthly, hidden beneath a full-page ad for the film. At the time, online marketing was such an afterthought that studios didn’t even bother with short and catchy web addresses for their major releases, let alone dedicated websites. (Star Trek Generations and Stargate was among the few early exceptions.)

After the never-ending process of transcribing the URL from the printer, I gathered the family around our Packard Bell PC (equipped with an Intel 486 DX and, say, 8MB of RAM) and waited for the video to slowly drop to 33.6kbps. dial-up connection. And he waited. It took 25 minutes to fully load. After connecting my family once again, I started the game and watched a horribly compressed, low-res version of the trailer I’d been dreaming about for months. It was incredible. The audio sucks. But that’s when I got addicted to online video.

I envisioned a futuristic world beyond my boxy CRT set and limited cable TV subscription. Long after VHS tapes, when I could just type in a URL and enjoy a show or movie while eating one of those rehydrated Pizza Hut pies. Back to the Future 2. This is how the internet would do it.

Looking back now, almost 30 years later and 20 years after Engadget came to life, I realize that my 11-year-old self was spot on. The rise of online video has transformed the internet from a place where we surf the web, update our LiveJournals, steal music, and chat with our friends on AIM to a place where we can just sit back and relax. For Millennials, this has quickly made our computer screens more important than our TVs. Although, I didn’t expect that the released video would completely upend Hollywood and the entire entertainment industry.

If I have experience Mortal Kombat the trailer wasn’t clear enough, the video was an internet disaster in the 90s. Most web surfers (as we were known back in the day) were stuck with incredibly slow modems and similarly inefficient desktop systems. But really the problem goes back to dealing with video on computers.

Apple’s Quicktime format made Macs an ideal platform for multimedia creators, along with Hypercard software for creating interactive multimedia databases. Mist and commitment to a mixed media education program. Computers relied on MPEG-1, which debuted in 1993 and was primarily intended for VCDs and some digital TV providers. The problem with both formats was space: at the time, hard drives were very small and expensive, making CDs the primary choice for accessing any type of video on your computer. If your computer only had a 500MB hard drive, a thin drive that could hold 650MB seemed magical.

But it also meant that there was no room for video on the early internet. RealPlayer was the first real foray into delivering video and audio streaming online—and while it was better than waiting 20 minutes for a huge file to download, it was still difficult to actually stream media when you were limited to a dial-up modem. I remember seeing buffer signals more than any actual RealPlayer content. Making web video truly reliable required broadband Internet access and the deployment of a special program from Adobe.

While we may curse its name today, it’s worth remembering how important Macromedia Flash was to the web in the early 2000s. (We were long enough to cover Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia in 2005!) Its support for vector graphics, stylized text, and simple games breathed new life into the web, allowing almost anyone to create that content. HTML just wasn’t enough. Ask any teenager or 20-something online then and they can probably still read most of it. End of the world by heart.

2002 With Flash MX 6, Macromedia added support for Sorenson’s Spark video codec, opening the floodgates for online video. (It was eventually replaced by On2’s VP6 codec in 2005. Google was acquired in 2009.) Macromedia’s video offering looked decent, loaded quickly, and was supported in every browser with a Flash plug-in, making it an ideal player choice for video sites.

As you might expect, the adult entertainment industry latched onto Flash video first. Porn sites also relied on the technology to block purchased videos and lure viewers to other sites with interactive ads. But YouTube (and to a lesser extent Vimeo) really showed mainstream users what was possible with video on the web. Since its launch in February 2005, YouTube has grown so rapidly serving 100 million videos per day By July 2006, it accounted for 60 percent of all online video. Not surprisingly, Google rushed to buy the company later that year for $1.65 billion (arguably the search giant’s smartest acquisition ever).

After YouTube’s shockingly rapid rise, it wasn’t too surprising to see Netflix announces its Watch Now streaming service In 2007, it also relied on Flash for video. At $17.99 a month for 18 hours of video, with a library of just 1,000 titles, Netflix’s streaming offering initially didn’t seem like much of a threat to Blockbuster, premium cable channels or movie theaters. But the company wisely expanded Watch Now to all Netflix subscribers in 2008, lifting the cap on any viewing: Netflix binge was born.

It’s 2007, I’m trying to watch a video on the internet. In my post-college apartment, I connected my desktop computer to an early (720p) Philips HDTV and suddenly had access to thousands of movies instantly viewable with a half-decent cable connection. I didn’t need to worry about planting torrents or compiling Usenet files (things I’ve only heard from dirty pirates, you see). I didn’t need to stress about any Blockbuster late fees. The movies were just sitting on my TV waiting for me to watch them. It was a digital media fanatic’s dream: legal content available at the touch of a button. What a concept!

Little did I know then that the Now Watch concept would basically take over the world. Netflix originally wanted to build hardware to make the service more accessible, but it shelved the idea and Roku was born. The company’s streaming also included NBCUniversal and News Corp. in late 2007. It spurred the creation of Hulu, which was announced as a joint venture between . Disney then joined Hulu, giving it the full power of all the major broadcast TV networks. Instead of an outdated library of old movies, Hulu allowed you to watch new shows online the day after they aired. Again, what a concept!

It turns out that Amazon was actually a streaming party long before Netflix. turned on Amazon Unbox service in 2006, which was notable for allowing you to watch videos downloaded to your computer. It was renamed Amazon Video On Demand (a better name that actually describes what it does) in 2008, and then Amazon Instant Video in 2011 when it was bundled with premium Prime memberships.

As the video streaming world exploded, Flash’s reputation took a turn for the worse. Until the mid-2000s, it was known as a very dangerous program, so insecure that it could infect your computer with malware. (I was working in IT at the time, and the vast majority of problems I encountered on Windows computers were entirely caused by Flash.) When the iPhone launched in 2007 without Flash support, it was clear that the end was near. YouTube and other video sites switched to HTML5 video players at that point, and that’s it It became standard by 2015.

In the early 2010s, YouTube and Amazon weren’t content to just license content from Hollywood, they wanted some of the action themselves. And so began a boom in original programming that began with largely forgotten shows (everyone’s Netflix’s Lillyhammer or Amazon Alpha House? Hemlock Grove? They were there, I swear!).

But then it came House of Cards A 2013 Netflix original series created by the playwright Beau Willimon, executive produced (and partially directed) by acclaimed filmmaker David Fincher and starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey (before he was revealed to be a monster). It had all the ingredients of a premium TV show and, thanks to Fincher’s deft direction, looked like something that could be right at home on HBO. Most importantly, it received some serious love for Netflix, It earned nine Emmy nominations in 2013 and walks away with three statues.

At this point, we were able to watch streaming videos in more places than just our computer’s web browser. You can take almost anything on your phone and stream it over 4G LTE or use your smart TV’s built-in apps. SNL On Hulu. Xbox can also serve as the centerpiece of your home entertainment system. If you want the best streaming experience possible, you can pick up an Apple TV or a Roku box. You can start a show on your phone while you’re sitting on the can, then seamlessly resume it when you return to your TV. It was certainly a milestone of sorts for humanity, although I believe it was really a net victory for our species.

Instant streaming video. Original TV shows and movies. This was the basic formula that drove a large number of companies to offer their own streaming solutions over the past decade. In the blink of an eye, we got HBO Max, Disney+, Apple TV+, Peacock and Paramount+. There’s AMC+, which comes with an almost entirely unlimited promise The walking dead shows. Starz streaming service. There are countless other companies trying to be Netflix for specific niches, like Shudder for horror, Criterion Channel for feature films, and Britbox for the tea-soaked murder-mystery crowd.

Let’s not forget the wildest, the boneiest streaming swing: Quibi. It was a nearly $2 billion mobile video game from Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Somehow he and his compatriots thought that even though YouTube was freely available, people would pay $5 a month for the privilege of watching videos on their phones.

Every entertainment company thinks it can be as successful as Disney, which has a vast and beloved content catalog as well as full control of Lucasfilm and Marvel properties. But realistically, there aren’t enough eyeballs and willing consumers for every streaming service to succeed. Some will die out completely, while others will bring their content to Netflix and more popular services (like they did with Paramount Star Trek Prodigy). There is already early rumors Comcast (parent company of NBCUniversal) and Paramount are considering some kind of alliance between Peacock and Paramount+.

Online video was supposed to save us from the tyranny of expensive and chaotic cable bills, and that’s still true despite the clutter of the arena today. Of course, if you want to subscribe to most of the major streaming services, you’ll still be paying a hefty chunk of change. But hey, at least you can cancel at will and still choose exactly what you’re paying for. Cable never.

It’s 2024 and I’m trying to watch a video on the internet. I slipped on the Apple Vision Pro, which might have support for the device Matrix. I fire up Safari on the 150-inch window floating above my living room and stare at it Mortal Kombat Trailer on YouTube. This whole process takes 10 seconds. I never had the chance to see the trailer or the original movie in a theater. But thanks to the internet (and Apple’s insanely expensive headphones), I can replicate the experience.

Maybe that’s why, no matter how complicated and expensive streaming video services are, I’ll always think: at least this stuff is better than watching it via dial-up.

Note Engadget’s 20th Anniversarywe’ve been revisiting products and services that have changed the industry since March 2, 2004.

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