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Back to Basics: Of Players and Plug-Ins

After being around the streaming media industry for any length of time, one thing we often take for granted is technology advancements that we use—mostly for convenience sake—to do our jobs. Yet these same technologies are new to those who have never watched streaming video and, perhaps, even new to someone who last watched a video in a Windows Media Player several years ago.

The move to browser plug-ins, added on top of the earlier availability of multiple standalone players is, at the very least, confusing to those who seldom think about the technology that we use every day, except when they really want to watch a key event.

Last week's presidential inauguration was a good example of this. Record numbers of live streams from across the globe, many by new or infrequent viewers, meant that a large number of these viewers were also introduced to playback in a browser, which required a plug-in. Faced with all the options, and a desire to watch a history-making event, many first-time streamers I spoke to expressed delight at when they were able to watch the streams but frustration at the steps they had to go through to view that content.

What do we mean by the terms players and plug-ins? In the early days, the battle in streaming (and in any desktop-video application, for that matter) centered on the players. There were three dominant players: QuickTime, RealPlayer, and Windows Media Player.

Over time, and as new video and audio codecs came along, these standalone players were updated, some more than others. Many of these players then began to offer built-in support for viewing content directly from a web browser: QuickTime and Windows Media, for example, could automate the process of installing both a web browser plug-in and a new standalone player for first-time player users (or for users who were updating their player to get access to the latest codecs).

For new technologies, though, like Flash or Move, the need for an external player apart from the browser was a bit of overkill. After all, the reasoning went, many viewers will navigate to content via their web browser and want to watch the content directly within the browser, so no standalone player will ever be needed.

That thinking has remained consistent for a few years, with Microsoft launching Silverlight as a way to put Windows Media Player almost fully within the web browser (and spawning, with Adobe, a battle for a set of web technologies that may move to the desktop in what's termed rich internet applications or RIAs). The plug-in itself doesn’t necessarily play video, so developers then create a Flash- or Silverlight-capable embedded player to play video content in the browser.

With that in mind, let's look at a few of the options many viewers may encounter. Understanding that several of these options span multiple computing platforms, but that most new viewers only use one computing platform, we're look at the player and plug-in options across platforms.

Windows
The Windows platform is the best supported for proprietary codecs, although standards-based codecs play equally well across all platforms.

Players
The integrated player is Windows Media Player, and the choice of a player or plug-in really depends on which version of the Windows Media codec you are using and—to a lesser degree—what processor is in your playback machine.

For any version of the Windows Media Video 7, 8, the original Windows Media 9, or the Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile codec, the Windows Media Player can be used on Windows XP and Windows Vista. Windows Vista comes with a version of Windows Media Player that includes the SMPTE standard VC-1 codec; Vista can also natively handle Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile playback, but a downloadable update for Windows XP is also available.

There are also QuickTime and RealPlayer versions for the Windows platform, although QuickTime tends to be played back from within the browser—and appears to continue in that direction, thanks to enhancements to QuickTime that are available in the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Plug-ins
For cross-platform compatibility, including VC-1 and Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile, Microsoft created the Silverlight browser plug-in. Microsoft recommends Silverlight for Windows XP and Windows Vista. For those on older machines, the standalone player is often the best option. Users need to restart their browsers after installing Silverlight, otherwise it will only display a blank screen in lieu of video.

Move has a plug-in that works well on Windows XP and Vista; while it, like the other plug-ins, will take a few minutes to download, Move's plug-in does not require a browser restart.

Flash Player is often pre-loaded on Windows machines sold by major manufacturers. If not, it can be downloaded and will request that the browser be closed before installing.

Like Silverlight, Flash is used on a variety of sites, so it's worth taking the time to download these plug-ins.

Linux
This Unix variant is coming into its own, and last week offered a good example of that: While there are many open source players on the market to support Linux, the addition of the Moonlight browser plug-in (which supports Silverlight video playback) was a nice addition to the Presidential Inauguration Committee's live streaming capabilities.

The use of Flash on Linux has also been widely adopted, with Adobe pushing out updates to its Flash Player for Linux in even step with those on the Windows and Macintosh platforms.

Mac
For the Macintosh platform, there are two dominant processors that will determine whether content can be played back.

Players
For those using Power PC-based Mac computers, the Windows Media Player for Mac OS X is capable of handing Windows Media Video 7 or the original Windows Media 9 codec.

Unfortunately for those who want to use a standalone player on a Power PC-based Mac, Microsoft has stopped updating the Player, noting on its site that, "as an alternative to Windows Media Player for Mac, Microsoft has teamed up with Telestream to make its popular Flip4Mac program available to Macintosh users." The Flip4Mac solution allows use of the QuickTime player to listen to Windows Media WMA and view WMV files on a Mac, and it supports Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile. Flip4Mac doesn’t support any content protected by Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM), which leaves those wanting to watch Windows Media DRM-enabled content on the Mac in a bit of a bind.

As recently as CES 2009, I ran into this problem: NBC Universal was handing out small MicroUSB chips that could be loaded with content from their booth. Unfortunately, as the content was DRM-protected and required a valid player to engage the DRM 14-day countdown, no option was available to play the content back on the Mac.

Plug-ins
For those on an Intel-based Mac who want to watch DRM VC-1 or Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile video, the Silverlight plug-in is currently the only option. This means that content that has DRM attached, but is not linked to a Silverlight Player, won't be able to play on the Mac (since all non-Silverlight-enabled content would revert back to Flip4Mac).

For Flash and Move, the options are the same as on a Windows XP or Vista machine.Move's plug-in can be downloaded at the time of playback and does not require a browser restart to play video. It does, however, require an Intel-based Macintosh, meaning Move content cannot be played back on the older Power PC-based Macs.

Flash can be played back on either Intel- or Power PC-based Macs, although its H.264 and hardware acceleration support will require an Intel Mac. Like the Windows platform, Flash plug-in installation does require a browser restart.

Summary
This brief overview of browser plug-ins for streaming content is by no means exhaustive—and with the fluidity in the market, may only be accurate for a few weeks or even days. In addition, not all browsers on all platforms play content from each plug-in, so your mileage may vary.

Yet the principles are consistent: The industry is moving more and more toward eliminating the standalone player, or at least in the case of Windows Media Player and iTunes, integrating multiple playback options into a standalone player but leaving the heavy lifting of high-quality streaming to the browser.

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