A Talk with Sorenson Media's Eric Quanstrom
COW Library : Compression Techniques : Jerry Hofmann : A Talk with Sorenson Media's Eric Quanstrom
Sorenson Media has always been a favorite company of mine, and my feelings for them haven't changed through the years. So I asked for an interview with Eric Quanstrom, Sorenson Media's marketing chief.
I wanted to clarify my own thoughts about Sorenson, but also wanted to talk about trends surrounding our industry and the growing trends in online video. From my perspective, that looks like something we all should be interested in. This year you couldn't buy a higher end TV without it being capable of connecting to the Internet without the use of a computer after all. Apple's making moves in the area, and we discuss that a bit as well.
Welcome to Sorenson Squeeze 6.
Click on above image to download a PDF of the highlights of Sorenson Media milestones.
To get a handle on the company and its history, here's a link: (http://download.sorensonmedia.com/360v2PressKit/Sorenson_Media_Milestones_0510.pdf) to a historical timeline that highlights the milestones Sorenson Media has reached over its 16-year history. The company is a true pioneer and innovator in the world of online video delivery. Witness the success of Sorenson Squeeze, Sorenson 360, and soon, Sorenson Squeeze Server. I continually follow the company's growth and success in this area of the industry, and am always impressed with the products and services that Sorenson Media has delivered to us year after year.
So let's get to the interview:
Jerry: What does a user gain by using Sorenson Media's products and services?
Eric: If you look at our history, you'll see that we mainstreamed online video literally from the beginning of the commercial Internet. We now have products all across the value chain from encoding to delivery, that make your life easier, more efficient, and help you deliver higher quality video with less headache. Obviously, we are not the only player in the Internet video industry, but many others provide "spot" solutions. We provide the necessary spot solutions from one trusted company.
Jerry: Right. So it's end to end. Encode, upload it, and put it on any website. Sorenson 360 actually serves the video, but the viewer on the Internet will think it's really coming from the website being visited.
Eric: That's right. We provide the entire infrastructure in a cloud backbone that get your videos delivered across the globe with the highest quality video experience available. You can customize the flash player to suit your needs or in an application framework, like if you're using an iPad, or some other mobile device. There's a synergy having all of the products work seamlessly together. If we know the device you're delivering to, we can customize the encode to fit the need.
If we know what your workflow looks like, we can plug into your non-linear editor. If we know your business we can plug in efficiencies for your entire workflow. So these are the kind of solutions we provide on a daily basis.
Jerry: How much does it cost and how scalable is this end-to-end solution?
Eric: Each of our products have different starting points, depending on what problems you're looking to solve. On a product like Sorenson Squeeze, it starts at $499 and moves up to our comprehensive solution at $799. That's a one-time traditional software purchase with subsequent upgrades. We're now on version 6 of the software.
We also have licensing costs associated with other products and services. Take Sorenson 360: Our monthly licensing fees there start at $99 and scale up depending on usage. Usage is determined by bandwidth consumed and total gigabytes stored. Our Sorenson Squeeze Server -- API Hosted service will be similar when the product comes out of Private Beta.
We also have licensing fees associated with our codecs as well as our specialized products such as Sorenson Smash (our app framework) and Sorenson Squish, our browser-based encoding widget, which we charge per asset encoded. With SquishNet, we charge by the number of assets managed. I won't go too deeply in the structure of these costs, but suffice it to say we have trained our sales team to customize a solution to suit your needs, based on the problem you're looking to solve.
Jerry: Don't you include a year of Sorenson 360 with your Squeeze product?
Eric: That's right. We give you enough bandwidth to understand the real value and the real power behind having a review and approval efficiency system, including the ability to post videos online, the ability to syndicate those videos wherever you want them to be, the ability to track whose using those videos in a secure way, or the ability to having them go viral out in the wild if you want.
We give a complementary account to Squeeze users because, frankly, when we started 360, we had heard from our customers that they use our product to take video out of our non-linear editor, get it into a format that is consumable across the web, but then they had the headaches of wondering what player they should be using. How can they make it consistent across the board, so they know where and when and "who is watching the video?"
Jerry: Why would you want to use Sorenson 360 instead of say, YouTube, when you can upload to YouTube for nothing?
Eric: We don't think it's an either/or situation. We always refer to it as an "and" -- being that YouTube has licensed our codec... Ironically enough, our Spark codec was the first codec ever adopted by YouTube. We think of them as a partner, like with Google's WebM initiative.
YouTube is a fantastic destination site. Obviously the numbers bear that out. The scale and scope of their numbers are staggering. We also believe that when it comes to managing your own website, including your properties and assets, control actually matters. And it matters to most people to a great degree. Control can mean ownership rights to a given video. When you upload to YouTube, you lose those ownership rights. Then there's YouTube's branding, which doesn't drive your business, it drives YouTube's business.
There are tools associated with control, and in our view again, this is where if you go back to your own workflow and video production process we give you a seamless, easy way to take that same video, and really drive your ROI across your web properties. Every website is a reflection of who you are as a brand. You're trying to drive brand awareness, increase sales, and increase visibility.
There are a million different cases here, but when you decide to use a video strategy, suffice it to say that quality, control, and feature set all become really important.
Jerry: That's definitely the case, and I've heard that YouTube will recompress your video, no matter what. In other words, you can't send them a really high quality video and know that that's the actual stream that will be watched. They will recompress your video to make it smaller (saving them bandwidth costs). That's something that you won't do?
Eric: That's right, and we give you the full control to set those parameters as granularly as you'd like as a customer, and we are easier to use. We also offer sort of "black box" solutions: our default settings.
Jerry: Right, I love the web interface in Sorenson 360 where you can just drag a QuickTime movie say from FCP's native output to a spot on the 360 web site, and it all just happens: the encode, the upload, the whole thing. Anybody can use this with ease. Anyone in the organization can do this without any real knowledge of encoding and uploading.
Eric: There are a lot of companies, too, that want to own the experience. We just announced an exclusive video services partnership with Shutterfly. Shutterfly wants to monetize video just as they have been monetizing still photos. And so controlling that experience across their user base, and providing that additional security, functionality and additional branding that they want and envision for their brand and their customers, is really important. That's one of the reasons why they chose Sorenson Media; we gave them that sort of control, in a way that others couldn't do.
Jerry: Now for a really tough question. You have competitors who attempt to do the quality of service that you provide such as Telestream. How are you different from them?
Eric: Telestream is a formidable competitor. They offer a broader product line than we do, yet they don't really delve into the delivery or the space that Sorenson 360 occupies currently. So it's interesting because their customers still have to solve some of the problems we address with Sorenson 360. We evolved our product based on our customer feedback and in ways that they haven't.
I think very highly of them. I think they make very credible products. From an apple-to-apples comparison set, I think you can say we have more features along certain lines than a product like Episode. They have their strong points, and we have ours. Arguably we are a better value. In that space, it's good to have options, and they've been doing it for a while too.
Jerry: They really don't offer a product like 360 though. You have a delivery platform as well as compression software. It's all an end-to-end solution. I mean, you can compress with Episode, but you can't upload your video to them, then use hyperlinks on your website so your viewers see your video as if it were being hosted on your website.
Eric: That's right.
Jerry: This is what makes you different then?
Eric: We hang our hat on quality. And when you think of the time it takes to do the encode, there may be faster solutions out there that will simply encode. However, when you add to that the time it takes to upload, and place your video on your site, or Review & Approve anything, things look different. A human being usually has to manually upload and manage that asset.
We attack this problem in a different way. We offer notification of when an encode is done, we can send it via SMS or by email directly to you, and we can also take those encodes and push them on through to Sorenson 360, putting them wherever they need to go, whether it's to a CDN, to YouTube, or to Twitter. There are a number of use cases there where if we are cutting time out of a step that would have taken you manually a lot of time, or save you time because you're not stuck at your desk, worrying about when the encode is going to be done, trying to gauge the progress bar. We give you the tools to notify you of the progress. That is the way we are trying to solve the time problems in a real world context. We're not just focused on absolute speed (of encodes) but we're focusing on the entire workflow. We're saying "OK, maybe your workflow begins with a watch folder, then you set up presets, the encode is done and the syndication of that video is done, and you're focusing on something else. It saves you a lot of time."
Jerry: It's plain that your software costs less than your direct competitors, and you actually are offering more than they can. You're offering nearly $1,200 worth of Sorenson 360 as part of the purchase of Squeeze 6. I can say that once you've used Sorenson 360, you sure don't want to go back to whatever you were doing before.
Eric: We're going to get further into their (Telestream's) space with the release of our server-based products in the coming months. I look forward to a healthy competition, and the real winner here will be the customer.
Jerry: That's right. Telestream is your biggest competition, but who else is really out there?
Eric: Free software on one end to hardware based encoders on the other end. There are pure hardware technologies starting from around $25,000 and up. I think we'll be more cost-effective. I look forward to the future.
Jerry: Are there some case studies you could give us?
Eric: Sure. On our web site there's about 20 different case studies we talk about, with more added all the time http://www.sorensonmedia.com/customers/testimonials/
We've tried to feature business of all sizes, because we know that having experiences working with the largest companies in the world on down the line to solo wedding videographers is very important. There's a lot of best practices to be learned from each business and how they're solving problems.
I think the connective tissue is that quality matters. Quality is credibility, and that matters to all of these people. Getting to the place where you know your quality is as good as it can be is critical. It's where we can tell people with confidence that we didn't cut corners, we didn't just simply integrate some open source solution because we viewed encoding or video content services as a commodity. Rather, we put the quality at the very forefront. Even if you're just using a web cam or flip camera, whatever process you use to get your video on the web and beyond, you will know that you are not using inferior processes to get there.
Jerry: Yeah, I think that when you see a video playback that is inferior, or it stumbles during playback you have a tendency to simply move away from it or you go to another website. I think that the opposite of this is what you offer. High quality video streaming from Sorenson Media always looks great to me. People want it now, and they want it good, and they want no hitches in the getting of it.
Eric: Take the company Sprint, for instance. Sprint Creative Services has been a long time Squeeze user, and they've adopted Sorenson 360. This team creates a number of different types of videos, ranging from the TV commercials we all see to customer service videos and more. Obviously they spend a lot of time and money to do all of the work that they do for a Fortune 500 Company. One of the real problems we solved for them was not only encoding at the highest quality, but also in providing a system that eliminates their old process of posting videos on FTP sites, or inelegantly downloading using a myriad of different players, in a myriad number of formats that were sent around the globe. A big problem they had was control. After all, if you're putting up videos that are part of a commercial rollout, you don't want them seen before they are aired. If you get in trouble by this happening, people can even lose their jobs.
Long story short, visit our website here: http://www.sorensonmedia.com/customers/testimonials/, and you can see how our customers use our products on a day-to-day basis. Their words say volumes. One of my favorite anecdotes is that one of the VP's is always traveling and not always easily contacted. She simply goes to the Sorenson 360 page and uses her iPhone to approve the videos. Ten years ago, you couldn't even imagine that happening.
Jerry: We can hardly keep up with the changes in technology these days. In that light, do you see Internet video basically killing TV, as we know it?
Eric: Interesting question. I don't think it will die, but it will morph. The "gate keeper" elements are changing the most. I'm anxiously waiting to see what happens this fall when Google delivers a set-top box that will be extremely easy to use and search on. Using web-based video that's easy to access.
The forms all of this will take are still working themselves out, and that will largely be played out over the next few years. I think that there is an enormous gravitational pull that's being exerted by the web and by mobile devices. I think that there's a cognitive psychology that's being driven by people who say, "I want what I want when and where I want it" regardless of what screen it's on. Whether on a web-enabled phone, tablet or TV, there are cogent solutions that tools providers are working towards. I think that content providers are waking up to the revenue implications for being wherever your customers want you to be. And that often means bypassing the gatekeepers.
What it may mean for cable companies is simply extending their footprint. As folks who own or have control of content, they are already moving in that direction. Look at the expansion of Hulu, which is largely a broadcast-backed web video consumption channel (also a Squeeze customer). Hulu has built their customer base around providers like ABC, and it's just an example of people wanting what they want when they want and how they want.
Jerry: I know of people who have ditched their cable or satellite service and put an antenna up and added something like a Roku box and they are perfectly happy with the experience. People with DVR's are already skipping commercials, the mute button has been on our TV remotes for years, and so it must be difficult for advertisers to even want to advertise on TV or decide where on TV to advertise. People begin to ask why are they paying for channels they'll never watch? And on it goes...
Eric: Yes. As a marketer, I am aware of these behaviors and I have to think about where and how to advertise. Am I going to waste dollars with advertising with various campaigns? There's a strong case to be made that a lot of this splintering or fracturing is being driven by people's notion that "I can have what I want when I want it", ads be damned. There is a lot of precedence for companies delivering the goods along those lines; Netflix being a great example of that.
I even say take your cues from Apple. One of the things they pushed close to the headline benefit of why you should get an iPhone 4 as opposed to your iPhone 3GS was that they developed a technology displaying images and text at greater than what the human eye can see. So I think it would be foolish to think that a company that develops it for one screen would simply sit on that technology, and not push that technology across other screens where they able to control what those screens were--how far away is a true Apple TV (not just the box)?
Jerry: I bought an iPhone 4 after I'd washed my iPhone 3 in a clothes washer. Trust me, they don't work after that. However they come out extremely clean. But it is startling just how much better that new screen is. Apple is building a very large data center in the east, and I can't imagine that they will only use this for every day cloud computing. I think what they've done with music and iTunes, they'll do with videos/films and TV as well.
Eric: Without a doubt. I can see a future where they'll build some sort of plasma, or some sort of Internet enabled TV. It would come loaded with your iTunes with a better visual enhancement. I see this sort of "pixel perfection" being an area of growth for a company like Apple.
Jerry: I think Steve Jobs has always wanted to be a heavy in the video industry.
Eric: Yeah, he was a co-owner of Pixar, right? So he arguably knows that space as well as anybody.
Jerry: Yes, and Pixar sold to Disney, making him a very large shareholder there now. And all the effort they've put into professional video editing software sells a lot of towers.
Eric: It's a solid business model.
Jerry: Yes, Apple is the only company in the world where the hardware, OS, underlying technology (QuickTime) and the editing software are all made by the same company. Avid can't say that. They don't build the PC's or Macs.
My students ask me what's better, Avid or FCP? My answer is that you have to look at what's out there. Apple has more or less "won the wars" with sheer numbers. About half of all professional editing stations out there are running Final Cut Pro. Less than 25 percent of those pro stations run Avid, and the rest are running Adobe and the other players in NLE's. So what's better is what's out there if you want to make a living as an editor.
There are always rumors of Apple dumping Final Cut Studio, and selling it. Why would they ever want to do that? The Pro Apps are profitable by themselves, and they sell a lot of professional machines. And it's a big feather in their cap to say that their software edited academy award winning movies and documentaries. That sells a lot of Macs to people that want to run iMovie. Rightfully so too. iMovie is a rockin' app in it's class.
Eric: It's consistent with the marketing strategies they've always pursued.
Jerry: So to sort of wrap this up, what's next for Sorenson Media?
Eric: Squeeze Server is up next. We don't have a specific released date. It's in private beta right now. Shutterfly is one of our customers already using elements of Squeeze Server along with Sorenson 360, as well as a host of other interesting companies that are in the private beta right now.
Jerry: You know I read a lot of posts on the pro video forums over the years (literally thousands of them), and I've never read a negative post about Sorenson Media's products, services, or customer service. It's always been first rate.
Eric: Well if you do hear it, we have very open ears. We love the Cow.
Jerry: The folks that work for Sorenson Media are all in the United States too, right?
Eric: That's right, we're in Salt Lake City, Utah, and San Diego, California. We have surf, sand, and skiing!
Jerry: Well I wish you the best with the upcoming software! Thanks much for your time Eric.
Eric: My pleasure.