Editor's Note: Standard Time
DRM and video formats and players are among the most hotly debated topics in streaming media. But the question those in the field should really be asking is, "Why have competing video formats at all?"
Among all the resources Streaming Media offers—this magazine, the websites (U.S. and global), the conferences—the hidden gem just might be the discussion lists, where experts and novices exchange ideas, solicit advice, offer suggestions, and debate the hot-button issues in online video. Nowhere else online do end users and vendors alike have the opportunity to reach out to their peers and get quick feedback on a project or free troubleshooting for vexing technical problems. Moderator Dan Rayburn makes sure that they stay free of sales pitches, too, which keeps everybody honest.
The email lists are terrific resources, and they’re only going to get better when we switch them over to online forums later this year. Of course, like any online community, they’re also the site of ongoing debates, usually good-natured and on-point. And even though passions sometimes run high, the arguments rarely devolve into the flame wars and ad hominem attacks that have driven me from many an online discussion list.
Not surprisingly, two topics ignite the most intense debates: DRM and video formats and players. The DRM debate tends to be philosophical in nature, a never-the-twain-shall-meet between those who think end users should be able to do whatever they want with content once they’ve received it through legitimate means and those who believe that the only way to protect intellectual property and financially reward its creators is to limit such use.
The video format/player debates tend to be a bit trickier, with participants’ opinions dependent largely upon whether or not they’ve got a horse in the race. Usually, of course, the debate is over the relative quality—in terms of both performance and usability—of Windows Media/Silverlight and Flash, and occasionally the arguments get so heated that an observer will suggest a no-holds-barred wrestling cage match at the next Streaming Media show to settle the score.
But those debates usually miss the bigger issue: Why have competing video formats at all? That question has long seemed polyannaish to those on the Streaming Media lists who are invested heavily in one proprietary technology or another, but now that Microsoft Silverlight has finally joined Adobe in supporting H.264 playback—QuickTime and RealPlayer were ahead of the game on this one—our industry needs to evaluate whether or not it’s time to agree upon H.264 as the standard for all online video.
Too often the debate over video formats has gotten bogged down in disputes over video quality. Perhaps Streaming Media has been guilty of perpetuating that debate with articles comparing the major video formats, but as long as the formats are competing, it makes sense for us to help our readers determine which one performs best. Jan Ozer’s tests have shown consistently that H.264 offers higher-quality video than Windows Media/VC-1, but that’s not necessarily the point. VHS didn’t beat Betamax because the video quality was better (it wasn’t) but in large part because Betamax’s 1-hour tape length precluded recording movies or offering them for rent or sale on a single tape.
That a single format is better for consumers hardly seems debatable; could you imagine if TV viewers had to think about what format NBC uses versus what format is on ESPN? But on one of the discussion lists, Ozer made compelling arguments why an H.264 standard makes sense for other reasons:
—H.264 has already been adopted by the International Standards Organization and International Telecommunications Union as a standard, which means it’s likely to become the standard for mobile devices.
—It lets chip and board vendors focus on supporting a single encoding platform.
—That, in turn, means Silverlight and Flash publishers can support both web and mobile with one server and technology.
The big question, of course, is whether or not all the players in the market—some of whom have invested significantly in Windows Media Video, whether in the technology and services they sell or thousands of hours of content they’ve already encoded—can agree to move forward on a single, nonproprietary standard. That’s a tall order, and frankly, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. But if online video is to achieve the kind of success that we all think it can on all relevant platforms—PC, phone, and other connected and unconnected devices—we need to give consumers not choice but consistency and simplicity so that they won’t have to guess whether or not the video they want to watch will play back on the platform that best suits them.