Bitmovin taunts rivals as start-up wins iflix encoding, $30m funding

US encoding start-up Bitmovin could hardly have wished for a better week. The five-year old firm picked up a $30 million Series B funding round and landed its biggest encoding deployment to date at Malaysian SVoD service iflix – one of the fasting growing OTT video providers across Asia Pacific and MENA.

Bitmovin claims its recent recipe for success is offering a container-based architecture, which the company told us back in January is based on Google’s open source Kubernetes container software, whereas rival cloud encoding providers offer “monolithic APIs which cannot run on customer-provided servers.” This encoding method allows customers to deploy virtualized encoding servers covering full cloud, on-premise and hybrid deployments combining the two.

Essentially Bitmovin’s encoding software covers most bases desired by a streaming video provider, but by claiming the bigger cloud encoding vendors have bulky APIs is a low-blow – seemingly to dissuade prospective customers from migrating to full cloud-based infrastructure for encoding workflows. Decelerating the momentum of a giant like AWS Elemental, for example, will play into Bitmovin’s hands by influencing service providers to take a cheaper option, when looking to switch out legacy encoding boxes. But is it really worth putting a value on scalability?

Iflix is running a “heavily optimized” H.264-based encoding workflow inside its own infrastructure, using encoding tools within Bitmovin’s containerized software. Presumably the fact that phones tend to be owned for up to 6 years in some of these markets, rather than the 2-year average in Western markets and China, means not all of them have the power to decode H.265 streams. So moving to something like Bitmovin gets these streams into a smaller bandwidth while still on H.264 for the time being – as it claims performance improvements of up to 30%.

Iflix CTO Emmanuel Frenehard told us: “We want to optimize for the world of emerging markets where connectivity is challenging and users are on mobile. H.265 is more interesting in the context of UHD and we are not pursuing UHD for now.”

Bitmovin’s technologies are exclusively encoding iflix content for delivery over low bandwidth mobile networks, which is par for the course in the Asia Pacific OTT video market.

When Faultline Online Reporter spoke to Bitmovin’s Solutions Architect Paul MacDougall in January, there was no mention of artificial intelligence being on the company’s not-so-distant road map. It should therefore have been a surprise when Bitmovin dropped a press release a month ago talking about AI-enabled encoding, were it not for the buzzword bombardment coming from all angles of the technology terrain.

Bitmovin is demoing its AI-enabled encoding for the first time at NAB this week, claiming to carry out an in-depth analysis of a full video before initiating the encoding process, as algorithms learn parameters to apply AI-optimized settings to every new video file. In the throng of NAB, Bitmovin execs were too busy to provide details on the company’s AI technologies, but a representative managed to deliver the following brief statement: “AI is very much happening for Bitmovin – it’s used in the first pass of a 3-pass encoding approach to analyze the entire file before the encoding even starts.” Once the dust settles, we will aim to establish specifics, such as if Bitmovin has written its own AI algorithms or is licensing them from a third party.

Bitmovin also used NAB to address the Alliance for Open Media’s AV1 codec, providing AV1 reference streams for chipset manufacturers following the launch of AV1 version 1.0 two weeks ago. Bitmovin CEO and co-founder Stefan Lederer said: “HEVC has not been successful because there are so many problems with the licensing situation. There are so many companies backing and contributing to this standard. This is just the beginning. Now the industry needs to build products and that is exactly where Bitmovin comes in.”

Iflix changed strategy from pure Netflix challenger last year, by expanding to offering live sports to complement its SVoD catalog, initially streaming live soccer matches in Indonesia. Iflix’s Frenehard explained that Bitmovin is currently only encoding VoD assets at this stage “to take advantage of the complex content analysis algorithm”.

Having picked up a live sports streaming deal at fuboTV earlier this year, offering hundreds of live soccer matches, we know Bitmovin has the encoding capabilities for live sports and will update this piece upon receiving confirmation. It remains unclear if the deal takes in iflix’s full footprint, but Frenehard pointed out iflix was for the large part encoding content itself, so the Bitmovin win does not necessarily involve a major vendor switch out procedure.

Investments from UK operator Sky, plus PLDT in the Philippines and Asian media firm Catcha Group have aided iflix’s expansion efforts. The service has hit 7.5 million active users, but paid subscriber figures are not publicized.

African sports site Kwesé, owned by telco Econet Wireless, owns a stake in iflix’s African unit, which delivers content to Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. Iflix claims 10 billion minutes were streamed on its platform in 2017, across 24 countries.

Frenehard added: “Delivering high-quality, high definition video to mobile is a key part of our commitment to providing users with the best customer experience possible where they are and on any device of their choice. Bitmovin’s encoding will allow us to redefine expectations for quality content in the markets we serve.”

David Godfrey, VP Asia Pacific at Bitmovin, said: “There’s no reason why bandwidth restrictions should hold back innovation in consumer experience. Iflix already has a wildly popular service and can now offer even better video experiences to existing and potential subscribers on every device and every browser.”