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Google Needs a Strategy for Video on Android Devices

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Many content owners who want to get their live event-based streaming content on mobile phones and tablets quickly find out that getting it to Android devices is extremely challenging. Unlike Apple’s iOS platform, Google has yet to provide an easy way to get live video to Android devices, and to date, it hasn’t detailed any strategy for fixing the situation. Many content owners I have spoken with, as well as those who help these content owners encode and distribute their video, are now questioning why they should even continue to go through all the trouble of trying to support Android-based devices at all.

While media companies can always build an app for their event series, most do one-off events and are faced with streaming to the mobile web and reaching their audience using browsers on Android and iOS devices. When Android phones became popular, live video was supported in the mobile browser via Adobe Flash, so digital video professionals with live content to distribute were able to keep doing what they were doing on the desktop. That’s not to say that Flash was perfect; in many cases these desktop players were heavy, containing ad overlays and metadata interaction that had a major impact on the playback quality. To get better quality video playback, some people turned to RTSP delivery. Android touted RTSP as its native live video format until Android 2.3.4 came out, after which that feature no longer worked.

The most effective way to get live video to Android browsers was to make a stripped-down Flash player that didn’t demand much from the phones. Video was decoded in the software, but it would drain batteries quickly. It was imperfect, but it functioned well enough. With the introduction of Android 3.0, it looked like HLS support was going to be built-in for all future devices, and that has held true — sort of. HLS support doesn’t match the specification, and buffering is common. Industry-leading HLS implementations such as those from Cisco and Akamai Technologies will not load on Android devices, so for the most part, content owners went back to Flash. But now Flash isn’t available for new Android phones.

Right now, content owners are left in an awkward state if they want to deliver live video to Android browsers. If Flash is present, you can deliver a basic Flash video player. If it is not, you can try to deliver HLS, but the HLS manifests must either be hand-coded or created using Android-specific tools. If the HLS video can play without buffering, you’ll find that there is no way to specify the aspect ratio, so in portrait mode it looks broken. The aspect ratio problem seems to have been fixed in Android 4.1, but it will often crash if you enter video playback in landscape mode and leave in portrait. You can allow the HLS video to open and play in a separate application, but you lose the ability to communicate with the page, and exiting the video dumps users back on their home screens.

Content owners can still send the same live video to iOS devices that they could in 2009, and it will play smoothly with little buffering. Live video support for browser-based streaming within Android tablets and phones is a significant challenge with little help available from Google. And with Google still talking about removing H.264 video support in Android, many content owners are wondering why they should even try to support Android any longer. What’s clear is that Google doesn’t have a strategy to fix the problem, and many content owners and video ecosystem vendors are frustrated. Content owners want to get their live video on as many devices and platforms as possible, and right now, getting it to Android devices is very difficult and costly. Unless Google steps in to solve the problem, don’t expect content owners to continue to try to support Android devices for live video streaming.

This article appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine.

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