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Will MSE/EME/DASH Lead to Simpler Workflows? Don't Bet on It
What the online video industry needs is simple standards for reaching all viewers. But when have standards ever simplified online video?

Proprietary technologies are inherently bad in the video space, except when they’re not. Standards inevitably simplify matters, except when they don’t. So it is with Flash, and its obvious successors, the Media Source Extensions (MSE), Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), and Dynamic Adaptive Streaming via HTTP (DASH). 

MSE/EME/DASH are the standards that will enable web publishers to replace Flash in their playback architectures. MSE eliminates two of HTML5's most critical limitations by bringing standards-based adaptive streaming and live delivery to HTML5 browsers and devices. EME brings a single encryption API to HTML5 browsers, providing digital rights management (DRM), addressing another former deficit. DASH is the standards-based file format that will actually deliver the streams. The vision is one set of cache-friendly streams in DASH format that can play on any MSE/EME-compatible computer or device, which will replace the two streams most producers create today for Flash and HLS playback.

Let’s start with encryption. Today, most premium distributors choose a single DRM technology for all target platforms. With EME, however, each browser or device chooses its own DRM technology, and at least for now, the choices have been very limited. That is, Microsoft uses PlayReady for Internet Explorer (IE), Google uses Widevine for Chrome and Android, Apple uses FairPlay for iOS and Safari, and Firefox uses Adobe Access. To play back in all these browsers or devices, you need to support all DRMs, and it’s unclear how this will play out.

The encoding side should be simple: The EME spec enables multiple DRMs in the file header, so you can create one file package that plays everywhere. For playback, it’s unclear whether you’ll have to support multiple DRMs to reach the various platforms, or if each DRM will be available on all relevant browsers or platforms. As an example, Microsoft’s initial implementation of EME is only available on IE 11 running on Windows 8.1; whether Microsoft will expand this is unclear. 

The codec side is also hairy. As a baseline, in addition to the Flash and HLS streams you’ll need to keep producing for legacy devices, you’ll need a new set of H.264-based DASH files for newer browsers that support MSE/EME. You may be able to use the same encoded files, though DASH will be in a separate package, diluting the cachability of your media files.

Going beyond 1080p gets really funky. Today, Chrome and Firefox support VP9. No browser supports HEVC, but let’s assume that IE and Safari both will. To support VP9 in Chrome and Firefox, you’ll need a VP9-based group of DASH files. To support IE/Safari, you’ll need an HEVC-based group of DASH files, which should also play on OTT boxes and smart TVs that likely will support MSE/EME. So where you produce two groups of streams today (Flash and HLS), you may need as many as five groups to support the new specs, four if you can include the H.264 files within the HEVC and VP9 DASH packages.

How will Flash compare two-years out? Consider Adobe PrimeTime, which will include HEVC playback and Adobe Access, reducing the number of DRMs to one and eliminating VP9 from the picture. Primetime can support either HLS and DASH formatting, and you can reach the vast majority of desktop and mobile devices, plus some OTT, with HLS formatting. For more comprehensive coverage, you may need to produce both HLS and DASH-formatted packages, but both can include H.264 and HEVC, so you’ll need two packages instead of four, and one set of lengthy UHD encodes instead of two.

To access this functionality, of course, you’ll have to license PrimeTime. Otherwise, to support UHD playback, MSE and EME may be your only options, and it’s time to start thinking about transitioning over. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that these standards will simplify your encoding requirements or workflows; from where I sit, they just look like more work.

This article will appear in the October 2014 issue of Streaming Media as "The End of Flash."

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