What is “Streaming” and What Does it Mean?

Clients are often unsure how to properly use the term streaming or unsure about what this term means. In a slight misuse of terms, you could substitute broadcast for stream. For example, you might hear a person say, “Last night, I streamed Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino on Netflix”. You could think in your head, “Last night, I broadcast Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino on Netflix”. It isn’t 100% accurate to think this, but it could help you while you work on getting your head around the term streaming.

A proper definition of streaming is transmitting a continuous flow of audio and/or video data while earlier parts are being used. The term refers to the delivery method of the data rather than the data itself. Another common delivery method for audio and/or video data is downloading the data onto your computer so the data ends up being stored on your computer. Streamed data is not stored on your computer, at least not the entire data file all at one time. When audio or video is streamed to your computer, the data is being continuously sent to your computer and your computer displays earlier parts while subsequent parts are being received. Once the earlier parts have been displayed they are typically discarded. Downloading and streaming data are two contrasting ways of obtaining audio or video data.

Looking back at our movie example, if a person downloads a copy of Clint Eastwood’s movie onto her computer so she can watch it again and again, then she is not streaming the movie when she watches it. She does not need to be connected to the internet to watch the downloaded movie. However, if this same person goes to her Netflix account and clicks a button to begin watching the movie, then Netflix begins to stream the movie across the Internet to her computer. This transmission is more fleeting. At any one point in time, only a small portion of the movie is on her computer.

There is a variety of streaming media currently available. These days one can stream movie trailers, Internet television and radio, YouTube videos and much more. Let’s look at some examples. If one lives in Boston, but wants to listen to a Seattle radio station, like KUOW, then one could go to www.kuow.org and listen to an audio stream that is identical to the radio station’s FM broadcast.  Streams can be live or on-demand. KUOW’s Internet audio stream is a live stream. Similarly, when Apple Inc. introduces a new product they will often hold an event in an auditorium and invite the press. To increase the event’s exposure they would often send out a live video stream of Steve Jobs’ presentation. Subsequently, they also often allow their web site visitors to watch the video presentation streamed to them on-demand.

If you’d like to read more about steaming media, this Wikipedia article is a good place to start.