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Buyer's Guide: Player Technology

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This article appears in the February/March issue of Streaming Media magazine, the annual Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook. In these Buyer's Guide articles, we don't claim to cover every product or vendor in a particular category, but rather provide our readers with the information they need to make smart purchasing decisions, sometimes using specific vendors or products as exemplars of those features and services.

Say you’ve just found out that you’re eligible for a cellphone upgrade, and a number of new smartphones are vying for your attention. You’ve spent 2 hours at work poring over details on a number of phones, reading reviews, and asking for advice from your Facebook friends.

After talking to a representative at a local mobile phone store and handling the phones that made the final cut, you choose the phone that best suits your needs. Then you go through the extra hour process at the store, moving contacts and other data from your previous phone to the new, shiny replacement.

On the way home, you get an email with a link to a video from a colleague. At a long red light, you tap the link to watch the video, and you see ... nothing.

This scenario plays out tens of thousands of times per day in the U.S. and, perhaps, millions of times per day across the globe. The inability to play video content on mobile devices—and even on a growing number of over-the-top or set-top boxes—is so common that it has lowered expectations across the board for the general public.

Even for the tech-savvy among us, this problem has spawned a truism: You can never have enough video players on your devices. Look at any application store, from Android to Apple, and you’ll see that the video player category has a respectable number of options.

Video Player ChecklistSo what are the factors you should consider when you choose a player for your content (or a device to watch it on, for that matter)? Here are six things to consider when choosing player technology:

1. Does the native player on the target device play the content?

Most device manufacturers have specifications on their websites, and many wireless providers also have the equivalent but more generic list of content types. The manufacturer will list the formats (MP4, MOV, AVI, Flash, etc.), while the wireless provider will often only list websites (YouTube, Vimeo, private-label sites, etc.).

Neither of these site or specifications lists, in their current form, are particularly useful. Here’s why: First, in the case of the service provider, the sites listed have millions of videos, many in different formats, and not all of the content on any of these sites will play on any given phone. In addition, many of the sites—with the exception of the private-label sites such as a V CAST or Sprint TV— will switch encoding or delivery methods to respond to the broader desktop market, with mobile device updates (or fixes) being relegated to the slow train.

Second, regarding the manufacturer’s specification lists, these container formats don’t convey the whole story, as we’ll see in the next point. As such, we recommend spending time in the store viewing videos from a variety of websites before purchasing the phone.

2. Does the player support both the format and codec combination of your content?

The other half of the story, beyond the container format (MP4, MOV, AVI) is the number of codecs used by the container format. Codecs such as H.264, VP6, or even VC-1 (formerly known as Windows Media Video 9) may be supported by one device but not another. In addition, the combination of any or all codecs and formats is often not supported.

We’ll use an example from a recent Google TV set-top box, the Logitech Revue. The official Android 3.1 (Google TV 2.0) release allows for support of the Matroska (MKV) container format as well as the MPEG-2 codec. While at least one rival product supports the full Android 3.1 specification, the Logitech box does not.

On store shelves, the outside of the Revue box says, “New and improved with Android 3.1,” and lists no container formats or codec combinations. So purchasers only discover that Logitech doesn’t support the full Android specification on the “new and improved” version after spending frustrating hours trying to play videos that match the official specification.

3. Does an add-on player provide any other codecs or container formats above and beyond those supported by the core operating system, without requiring jailbreaking?

This is especially important with mobile devices, but it is also gaining a level of importance with set-top boxes.

Just because the chipset of a particular device may support the codec and container format of your choice, it does not mean that the company will support the capabilities of the chip (Logitech does not officially support the MPEG-2 codec, even though the Revue’s chipset is capable of doing so). So the only way to play some content on some devices is to jailbreak the device. Doing so voids warranties and may be against the law in some locales, although those laws are slowly changing for individual device owners.

In a few player-device combinations, however, the core operating system officially supports the ability to install an application that, in turn, adds other codecs. Often, the player app will be free of charge, but the app creator will charge a nominal amount for the additional codec packs to offset the cost of codec licensing and royalty fees.

4. Does the player require a special plug-in to be downloaded?

In most users’ minds, there is a big difference between downloading an application and downloading a plug-in for the web browser.

Adobe recently announced that it was ending ongoing development of the Flash Mobile Player for Android devices. The plug-in was used in Android’s native Chrome mobile web browser. At the same time, though, Adobe reiterated support for embedding the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) into stand-alone apps. Since AIR contains Flash Player capabilities, Adobe is eliminating the need for mobile users to download a plug-in update every time a new one is available, while also putting the burden of testing video playback within an app squarely on the shoulders of the app developer.

Apple capitalized on the app versus plug-in difference in iOS, which powers a number of devices. Apple’s late chairman, Steve Jobs, famously refused to allow the Flash Player plug-in for the iOS mobile browser, Safari, persuading content owners instead to deliver content in Apple’s preferred format.

5. Will content play the same way across all devices? 

Until recently, with the exception of iOS devices, we had the promise of having the Flash Player on everything from Mac and Windows laptops to set-top boxes and mobile handsets. The advent of HTML5 has muddied the water a bit, as has the need to deliver content to Apple devices in Apple’s preferred manner. But the looming issue is less about whether the content will play on a device and more about whether it plays consistently across multiple devices.

Users who have an iPad tablet and an Android phone, for instance, may see a difference in both content presentation and consistency of delivery, depending on which player application is updated first. If you crave consistency of user and viewing experience, we recommend viewing content from preferred sites on all of your devices, using players available on each of your devices, before settling in to a particular player.

6. How does the player handle indexing and organizing content?

Some of us are neat freaks, with an almost compulsive obsession to organize our media content as neatly we organize our sock drawers. For the rest of us, though, a player that can double as an organizational tool is an added bonus. User interface and the organizational functions of a mobile video player will probably be the key differentiator within a few years time, as the industry coalesces around one or two basic video format-codec combinations.

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2012 Streaming Media Sourcebook Editor's Note

We're growing the Streaming Media brand with Streaming Media Producer and an expanded Buyer's Guide section in this year's Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook.