Sunday, 25 April 2010

Interesting times for OTT video

So it looks as though we're about to be living in interesting times for OTT video.

Apple and Adobe seem to be having a spat over Flash; specifically, over Adobe's irresistable force of content vs Apple's immovable object of control. A side-effect of this is likely to be that the long-awaited Flash 10.1 for devices will end up on Android first.

This is going to be a bit of a pain for a lot of people; STB manufacturers will need to end up either embedding an X server (for the Linux version) or running Android (for the android version) and neither of those is a good plan - X is big and wastes cycles, and more importantly is terribly buggy for a TV-grade product. Android is small and efficient but entirely convinced that it is a mobile phone and it's very hard to dissuade it from thinking so. I'm thinking that the best way around this at the moment is to run their userlands side-by-side, but it's not a pretty best way around. Hopefully most people will buy their way out via startups like Vidiactive .

In other news, Theora for HTML5 video seems not to be about to go away, and Google are rumoured to be releasing VP8 next month, whilst the MPEG seem to be pressing ahead with their H.265 effort.

Contrary to rumour, Theora and VP8 should not be the performance killers they're generally supposed to be, except on legacy systems. Owners of ST710x s are probably hosed, but both codecs are designed to be fast on general-purpose CPUs so the current generation of chips should be perfectly happy with SD VP8. HD will probably require either a GPU or a programmable video accelerator - On2 used to claim on their website that they could get 720p VP8 decode out of a 1.5GHz ARMv5, so I'm betting an OMAP3730 should be able to get D1 out of its ARM and 720p if you split decode between the cores: Theora 360p decode pretty much works on an N900.

There are, of course, three elephants in the room

The first is adoption: I think in practice we're going to see the world move over to VP8/Vorbis and HTML5 video over the next few years. Flash is just too nasty, big and expensive to survive - particularly since the spec seems to just keep growing. This is not necessarily bad news for Adobe: they've never monetised the Flash client and it is frankly just a drain on their development resources that they can happily live without.

The second is audio: Little-known fact - you don't have to pay royalties for streaming H.264 over the internet but the same is not true of any of the popular audio formats: MP3, AAC and AC3 royalty rates are all much larger than the $0.10/unit H.264 royalty - which in any case only applies if you ship more than 5k units or so of a decoder - and none of them allow you to stream their audio over the network for free, though they're obviously waiting to see how things pan out before asserting their rights. From a royalty regime point of view it's much more important to replace AC3 and MP3 with Vorbis than it is to replace HTML5 with Theora. Particularly since the MP3 licensors, in particular, are apt to charge punitive rates to implementations which take other formats too - this being one reason why IPTV broadcasts generally avoid mp3.

The third is, of course, content access. YouTube in particular has been notable in taking a traditional-media attitude to online video: they'll talk to you, if you have 1m subscribers. If you don't, you don't get their content.

Hopefully, media providers like the BBC and YouTube will take a liberal position and realise that all they need for monetisation is some compliance provisions, such as are already in place with WMDRM. Otherwise, we'll be in for the usual content-access fight as the providers attempt to leverage their content to control the market in decoding devices, hosing consumers in the process. This never works, but it doesn't seem to stop people from trying.

One thing that would help free formats' cause here is an open-source DRM system. The idea isn't a contradiction in terms - there is no reason why you shouldn't 'voluntarily' lock down your STB so as to prevent you from taking digital copies of media without compromising the freedom of the rest of the system, and it is certainly better to have a free, open standard for DRM than to either lock all worthwhile content behind expensive, proprietory technology or to allow unrestricted piracy.

If we're lucky, google checkout/paypal and some smarts from the content providers should see micropayment VoD actually bear fruit. I remember going to a seminar about that in 1993.

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