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An Olympic workout for your browser

Growing up, the Olympics were a time of magic and excitement; a time to dream and a time to watch this uniquely human drama unfold. New stories were created minute-by-minute while old glories of Olympics past were retold and polished ever brighter with each passing year. Interestingly enough, although one of us grew up on the western coast of South America and the other on the eastern coast of North America, our Olympic experiences were not dissimilar: families gathered around the TV each day or night to share the experience; the opening ceremonies were not to be missed and were much discussed at school the next day; and, whether an American athlete or another athlete won a particular event, there were always the stories of triumph or heartbreak to capture our attention and hold us rapt. The Olympics were, and remain, magic.

This Olympics has brought with it an aspect of technological magic that is breaking as many records as Michael Phelps. According to an NBC press release the day after opening ceremonies, garnered 70 million page views, which is 10 times more than the opening day of the Athens Games in 2004 and, in just the first week of August, had more than 127 million page views, nearly half the total for the entire Athens Games. Why this dramatic increase? And what are the implications for the would-be Olympic viewer?

Technological Impact

Although there are multiple factors that contribute to this increase, such as a larger online population, or an increased tendency to get our news online, the single biggest factor here is online video. And not just any video, but high-definition video streamed to the tune of 250TB on a single day, according to the Microsoft site. What Microsoft has done, in essence, is to use a mainstream event to push their technology, Silverlight, and they have done it quite successfully. From a user perspective, this more welcome than the previous autocratic approach one has come to expect. After all, if you give me something I really want and you don’t make it too difficult for me to get it, I am much more likely to try your new product or download the latest version of your software, for example. On the other hand, for those of you that are not Microsoft fans (and according to Mashable’s pool, 20% of you would still boycott Silverlight, despite its undeniable success during these Olympics), YouTube has an Olympic channel, and Adobe can still claim that 75% of Web video is broadcast in Flash. With 10 million downloads a day, Flash is still the most ubiquitous video plug-in for the browser.
This leaves the folks who are very attached to their iPhones at a bit of a disadvantage: although users already hacked their way into watching the Olympics on the iPhone using Quicktime movies, the video is not HD, so the viewing experience, already limited by the size of the screen, is further degraded. Although Steve Jobs claimed in March that Flash doesn’t quite cut it yet, the other side of that coin might be that allowing a proprietary third-party application on the iPhone is not in Apple’s current plan of control. And what is true for Flash might be equally true for Silverlight. We’ll have to wait and see.
The good news here is that competition from Microsoft’s Silverlight will ultimately benefit us, the viewers. In recent years Adobe has released improvements to Flash as well as a runtime platform (AIR); still, with their virtual monopoly under attack, we should see the pace of innovation pick up, with better features like video, and local storage—crossing the line between browser, desktop and mobile platforms.

Advertising Impact

Who amongst us was not happy when Tivo and other DVRs came along, allowing us to zip by those pesky commercials? Many Tivo owners skip commercials, although they might find the occasional Super Bowl commercial quite entertaining. An interesting aspect of the delivery mechanism for the Olympics (and other video streaming) is the reintroduction of the viewer being a captive audience to commercials. Just watch this tiny little commercial snippet and they will let you move on to the main event. Fortunately, the producers of the videos seem to be learning from their mistakes and not abusing the captives too much with lengthy or boring commercials.
There are even better possibilities for targeted marketing, as well, since there is a lot of information that can be inferred about a person in a non-intrusive manner. For example, in order to download the NBC videos, you are required to enter your zip code, your cable company, and the local TV station that is the NBC affiliate. Once you do that, it is not too far a stretch of the imagination that you could be shown advertisements based on the type of channel you usually watch. If you spend 10 hours a week with Home and Garden TV, ads from Home Depot would be more assured of reaching a receptive audience and would, therefore, be more effective.

Security Impact

The Olympic broadcast contracts are negotiated on a per country basis (e.g., NBC in the US, and CBC in Canada), with Web broadcasting subject to strict use of geo-blocking technology to keep the feeds local. Still, there are ways to circumvent this restriction, and all over the blogosphere a “cat and mouse” chase ensued of users posting and proxying transmissions from the games in China. The Olympic organization was very keen to enforce these agreements and mandated that all networks limit their transmissions. The German network ARD was briefly banned from Olympics Internet transmissions because it didn’t properly secure broadcast of the opening ceremony, allowing many users outside Germany to view it live.
In our eyes, one of the least effective measures for NBC to prevent out-of-country viewing was to request Internet viewers to supply their zip codes, cable companies and local TV affiliates. As a matter of interest, we used Google search to locate a valid combination in approximately 3.5 minutes, including a dead end or two. If the networks are going to protect their broadcasting rights, some more stringent security measures might be warranted.

Viewer Impact

But should we take those more stringent security measures? Do the Olympics not belong to the whole world, rather than a broadcasting company? What about the people in Kenya or Laos who might not have a TV but just might have access to a mobile device where they can see their own hometown heroine competing in the Olympics? Would not making it easier for everyone to see and, in their own way, participate in the magic of the Olympics be the worthier goal than breaking a record number of software downloads or page views for a site?
Putting aside those broader concerns, another interesting aspect of the Olympic broadcast over the internet was the use of PIP (picture in picture). A viewer could track what was going on in two events at one time. The temptation for ads to be placed in that small PIP window is strong. While this is a technological bonus, how effective is that marketing attempt on the viewer? For that matter, if a viewer is trying to watch two events at one time, how can attention be fully paid to one or the other? If I am trying to capture the attention of a potential customer, would it not be better to have their undivided attention for a short period of time, rather than their divided attention over a longer span?


The 2008 Olympics have certainly marked a turning point in the technological ability to deliver more images, faster, through more devices and methods. On the surface of the Olympics, what we see is competition: one athlete against another athlete, one team against another team, one country against another country. What is not so obvious, perhaps, is the massive and overwhelming amount of cooperation of all countries involved to bring their teams to the same place, at the same time, to live side-by-side in friendly competition for sixteen days. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. It is, in the end, about human endeavor and we in the technology industry should always keep that in sight.
For the Internet marketer, finding the right balance between intrusive marketing (which customers try to avoid) and marketing which strikes the right tone (by providing potential customers with information that might interest them) is a constantly evolving challenge. As new technologies like Silverlight, come onto the scene and information channels, such as video, grow in use, sometimes explosively, the Internet marketer needs to be prepared to adapt and respond to different ways of doing things, while achieving their ultimate goal of interesting the customer in their product or service. This requires responsible and creative use of information about the customer, a willingness to strike a balance between your customer’s needs and your own, and a demonstrated concern for security. Failure to pay attention to these aspects of Internet culture could lead to Olympic-sized mistakes.

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