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Beamr plays with fire, offering 100h free transcoding every month

Video compression company Beamr quietly set the timer on what could be a widespread disruption bomb back at NAB, lying low until detonation in a few weeks’ time. How will the transcoding majors react when Beamr launches its Free to Start initiative – giving away 100 free hours of Beamr Transcoder VoD to every sign up, every month?

According to Beamr, there is only one outcome. “The other guys are going to freak out, the small time operators, who only need to transcode some 100 hours of file-based content a month, love it,” said Beamr’s VP Marketing Mark Donnigan, speaking to Faultline Online Reporter at TV Connect in London this week.

It sounds completely bonkers, but Beamr has nothing to lose. All it takes is for someone to submit a business email address, name and phone number, pass the anti-bot authentication step, and wham – a link to download one of the industry’s most prestigious pieces of transcoding software lands in your inbox. According to Donnigan, a company can simply run the software on their on-premise infrastructure, or AWS, Google or Azure instances, meaning no burden back at base at Beamr.

Controversial, certainly. But for our money, we suggest the bigger vendors will barely bat an eye lid. Donnigan agreed: “We’re not expecting Harmonic’s share price to drop by 50% overnight but sure, there has to be some kind of reaction. The reality is, rivals have to open up access.” Granted, if Beamr picks up the number of customers it expects to from Free to Start, then competitors will have to react.

We have said in the past, we expect the transcoding wars to drive prices down dramatically, as part and parcel of the overall commoditization of OTT video technologies. Therefore Beamr is playing a dangerous game.

Donnigan claimed, through an unnamed source, that there are “some hundreds of thousands of x264 users out there (an AVC encoder developed by VideoLAN). Even if this guesstimate is 50% off the low end estimate meaning 50,000 users – it’s still a huge potential customer base we could tap into simply by offering Beamr Transcoder free from the get go.”

To fully understand Beamr’s new marketing platter, consisting purely of free transcoding, it all comes down to the legalities of being in the complex codec business. “This is how open source started. Offering it free to download means no NDAs, when previously it would take 90 days just to get an NDA done,” said Donnigan.

It all started when a major, unnamed operator approached Beamr. A high level executive apparently came out with the cliche line – “we can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” The hard way being the standard and arduous approach; the easy way being a free tester. Obviously, Beamr was unwilling to give away its software free to use, without any protective barrier in place. Yet the lure of a tier 1 contract on the table was too much to pass up. “We thought, let’s just remove the friction and let them drive the car,” said Donnigan.

Before we get too carried away, let’s not kid ourselves, there are a few minor catches. For starters, the 100 hours free applies only to HD resolution or lower, so transcoding 10 hours of 4K content would use up your entire free allowance. For now, transcoding can only be done in H.264 or HEVC, including HDR and CABR, not in ProRes or MPEG-2, and it also excludes any Dolby Atmos and dynamic ad insertion capabilities, which could put off a bunch of potential AVoD customers. It also has to be connected to the internet at all time, and an obvious one is no carry-over.

The simplicity of Free to Start means it’s not just targeted at companies with content assets but can also be used by students. “An electrical engineering student can download Beamr Transcoder, run some tests on it for a thesis, then graduate and arrive at their first job at say, Hulu, with a leg up on any other candidate,” said Donnigan.

Beamr only launched its Transcoder VoD product a month ago, so it would be unfair to assume the product has flopped, leading the company to hand out freebies. Donnigan told us back at Mobile World Congress that Transcoder VoD was preparing to launch initially as a free version, but we never expected it to be on a large scale.

Beamr came to market around the idea of perceptual filtering, essentially a method for simplifying the compression process based on eliminating fine details the human eye cannot see. But it acquired Russian encoder firm Vanguard Video, which is where the Transcoder comes from. It claims to offer the lowest total-cost-of-ownership in the market when running on Intel Xeon Scalable processors. Donnigan also assured us Beamr’s new live transcoder will have launched come IBC in September.

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