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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Internet Streaming: What is it and How Does it Work?

Smart TV displaying streaming service apps
Manuel Esteban/Shutterstock 

We’ve been streaming content from the internet for a long time, and it’s gotten to the point that the internet is synonymous with services like Netflix and Youtube. But what exactly is streaming, and how does it work?

Streaming Happens Bit by Bit

When you want to watch a video or play a song on your computer, you need to download it first. There’s no way around that. Knowing this, you may look at Netflix or Spotify and ask “how did we figure out how to make videos and music download instantaneously?” Well, that’s just the thing. When you stream media, it isn’t downloading to your computer instantaneously; it’s downloading piece by piece in real-time.

The word “streaming” is self-descriptive. Information arrives at your computer in a continuous, steady stream of information. If downloading movies is akin to buying bottled water, streaming movies is like using a faucet to fill an empty bottle.

You could compare streaming a movie to watching a VHS tape. When you play a VHS tape, every second of video and audio is scanned piece by piece. This happens as you’re watching in real-time, which means that any interruptions will suddenly pause or end your movie watching experience.

When you stream a movie or a song, your computer downloads and decodes itty-bitty pieces of a media file in real-time. If you have an unusually fast internet connection, then the file may be fully downloaded before you’re finished watching or listening to it, which is why a stream will sometimes go on for a while even if the internet cuts out. That being said, anything that you stream doesn’t go into your computer’s permanent storage (although some services, like Spotify, will put some small cache files on your device to make future playbacks faster).

Businesses Work Hard to Make Streaming Fast

Streaming video and audio from the internet isn’t new; it just feels new because it’s finally convenient. Watching a video or playing a song from a website happened bit by bit used to be an annoying and time-consuming affair. The stream would constantly stop and start, and you could spend minutes just waiting for media to buffer (and sometimes, it wouldn’t buffer at all).

But the way that streaming works has mostly stayed the same. Files download bit by bit as you’re watching or listening to them. It’s the infrastructure that’s changed, and businesses like Youtube and Netflix have worked hard (and spent a lot of money) building that infrastructure.

abstract filing cabinets bulging with files
Sashkin/Shutterstock

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