What Will 2016 Look Like to the Historians of the File-Based Revolution?

By Vidispine - March 9, 2016 (Last updated: April 7, 2017)

We had the fortune of using Steve Sharman as a sounding board for our 2016 prediction blog post. We were so happy talking to him that we asked him to write his own guest blog post on the state and future of file-based content workflows. Here it is, Steve’s answer to what 2016 will look like to the historians of the file-based revolution?

Pixar Animation Studios Illustration

I had the privilege of speaking to a group of media technology students at Salford University in the UK a couple of weeks ago. Talking through some of the usual topics associated with file-based workflows, I was struck again by how long the transformation journey that we’re all still on, has been. To put things into perspective, in the late 1970s following the success of Star Wars, George Lucas established his Computer Division with the aim of improving editing processes, special effects and audio processing using computers. So much came from this one initiative[1] – Pixar, THX Sound, a Digital Audio Workstation called the Sound Droid and a non-linear editing platform called the Edit Droid (subsequently purchased by a young and growing Avid) – that you could be forgiven for associating the Lucasfilm Computer Division with the start of the move to file-based content workflows. Forty years later, we’re still on that journey – so what will 2016 look like to the historians of the file-based revolution?

“Forty years later, we’re still on that journey – so what will 2016 look like to the historians of the file-based revolution?”

In some ways, 2016 seems likely to be like other years in the recent past – commercially quite tough, lots of distractions caused by things that may well have a low impact in the short-term – this year’s is Virtual Reality (VR) – and new for 2016, the continuation of the squabbling around whose view of the world is going to gain the most backers from the point of view of a transition to IP-based production. In some others, 2016 looks like it could be a bit of a rollercoaster, with moments of terror and elation, depending on the part of the industry that you’re working in! Let’s speculate…

I think 2016 is the year that we finally see some public and aggressive moves into the cloud for broadcasters and content companies, particularly for supply chain logistics, and particularly for those who either don’t yet have significant investments in in-house MAM and workflow systems – including some surprisingly significant names in the US – or whose first generation tapeless systems are heading for the end of life. Keep an eye on companies like SDVI who are building cloud-native supply chain systems – CFO’s and CTO’s looking at cost/capability trade-offs are increasingly going to go straight to the cloud rather than trying to run complex internal technology build-out programmes – they don’t have the time, or the increasingly the appetite for risk – especially given that getting a return from “Big MAM” projects continues to be a source of concern.

“It would be nice if we could find a better word than “cloud” to describe the kind of utility services offered by Amazon, Microsoft and Google”

Amazon Web Services will continue to grow in importance to the broadcast and media sector. Transparent pricing, versatility and the sheer variety of services offered by that platform means that organisations looking at cloud archiving, transcode and rendering, some business systems and even large-scale data analytics, would be missing a trick if they carried on building their own systems rather than making use of the building blocks that Amazon has available to be exploited. AWS appears to have become to new default provider when it comes to a lot of infrastructure services for broadcasters, and it feels like Microsoft and Google would have to do something pretty spectacular to change that.

As an aside, it would be nice if we could find a better word than “cloud” to describe the kind of utility services offered by Amazon, Microsoft and Google because it’s become such an overloaded and confused phrase – but I’m not hopeful on that one. After all, we’re the industry that keeps having a problem remembering that MAM and workflow systems are not one and the same…

“I think (and hope) that 2016 is the year that we finally see the demise of semi-manual workflows”

As well as the advance of the cloud, I think (and hope) that 2016 is the year that we finally see the demise of semi-manual workflows – the traditional cobbling together of scripts, watch folders and manual intervention. There are now so many new content services and platforms, so many new devices and such a volume of content to be distributed that anything other than automated workflows simply isn’t sustainable for a content business of any significance. This shift, once seen by some as something of an expensive luxury, is now seen as a matter of pure survival, and will involve really hard commercial and business change. I also expect those who have made the change to start making much more aggressive use of the management information that proper automation brings – to squeeze every ounce of efficiency out of their processes in the name of cost and efficient customer service.

As an adjunct to the last few points, I think we’re going to see life getting even tougher for content processing houses – playout, media management and VoD prep is a difficult business to be in. Many of these supply chain businesses currently lag behind when it comes to workflow and technology, and not all of them are heading in the right direction quickly enough. Expect to see more mergers, takeovers, and some withdrawals from the market – there will be significant change in this sector in 2016. Having sounded a note of caution, I do however see some positive messages coming from providers who have made investments in modern workflow technology over the past few years, and who are getting commercial leverage because of it.

We’ll continue to see movement around the IP hype curve, with a mixture of the usual marketing nonsense with some real/interesting projects in 2016 – DMC’s migration to IP-based playout enabled by Pebble Beach’s Orca is an interesting move in this area, and we’re going to see more organisations decide that they don’t want to rebuild traditional facilities as they decide to move from city-centre to more cost-effective locations. I don’t think we’ll see our first Amazon Web Services-based linear playout facility in 2016 because of economics (the cost associated with AWS is always about getting stuff out, rather than putting stuff in), but it’ll be there in the back of people’s minds waiting for the cost of getting content out of Amazon to drop low enough.

“True content over IP will take a bit of time, but there seems to be a lot of promising stuff coming to the fore around VSF TR-03 and associated industrial alliances.”

Hopefully we’ll see organisations reconsidering approaches stuff like SDI encapsulation over IP (SMPTE 2022-6) – a lot of people I speak to don’t see this as transitional, but as a dead-end that has the potential to serve the manufacturers at the expense of customers, and may even serve to slow down a migration to true IP-based production infrastructure. True content over IP will take a bit of time, but there seems to be a lot of promising stuff coming to the fore around VSF TR-03, associated thinking, and associated industrial alliances. We will hopefully have the courage to concentrate on a true next generation, and not do what we always do and back ourselves into a hole based on a small rather than a brave step forward.

Information security will continue to be an important topic. Most broadcasters are now under continual assault from the outside world, whether that be denial of service attacks because certain groups don’t like the messages coming from their news organisations; or individuals or groups looking to cause damage, steal content and information, or disrupt operations and cause embarrassment, just because. Many organisations have robust external defences, but quite a surprising lack of basic security awareness in some of their core content production and distribution areas – well publicised cases of attacks even on air-gapped military and industrial networks shows that systems that are not designed to be secure from the start can be vulnerable, regardless of the protective measures layered around them. I don’t think we’re far away from the time that an information security breach brings down a high-profile channel or two – and CTOs and operational managers need to start addressing this risk now – before it’s too late. This is going to be a difficult area to address, because the problem is only part technical – changing entrenched attitudes and behaviours and getting people to think differently will, as always, be the hard bit.

Finally, and slightly self-servingly, because this is my own current area of focus. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is a big topic in the wider world – services like Siri are still seen as a bit of a toy, but there are companies out there solving real business problems with machine intelligence – a great example is x.ai, with their Amy personal assistant service that handles meetings for you in similar way to a human PA. I’m excited about the potential here, and in 2016 (OK, late 2016 maybe), I’m hoping and expecting to see startups applying machine intelligence to new software products for integration, workflow efficiencies and business management in media.

Red Arrows illustration

As I sit writing this at home in Lincolnshire in the UK, I can hear the sound of the Royal Air Force aerobatic team – the Red Arrows – practicing above our village. Along with their counterparts around the world, the Reds are a great example of what can be achieved through teamwork, hard graft and the relentless focus of clever people on solving difficult problems. Forty-odd years ago, Lucasfilm assembled a group of clever people, and set them to work on some hard problems, and we’ve been on a journey ever since to get the best advantage we can from the application of technology to storytelling. I think 2016 is going to be a tricky year once again – but I think we’re also going to see some landmark advances.

[1] See “DroidMaker – George Lucas and the Digital Revolution” by Michael Rubin. A very entertaining and informative read.
[2] Pixar Animations Studio image attributed to Coolcaesar under license CC BY-SA 3.0.
[3] Red Arrows image Crown Copyright under licence OGL (Open Government License).

This post was written by Steve Sharman of Hackthorn Innovation Ltd.