TV-BAY Magazine Issue 66 June 2012
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in a financial briefing for analysts that it was ceasing development of Flash for mobile browsers. Instead it intends to focus on HTML5, the latest version of the HTML language that underpins the whole of the web, and which includes the capability to play audio and video without the additional wrapper of Flash. Adobe, Google and Apple all have implemented or proposed their own approaches. These protocols are all roughly equivalent in that they use HTTP as the transport mechanism and provide bit rate adaptation to allow video quality to automatically match the client’s available bandwidth. Although the statement was clearly only about Mobile Flash, it inevitably set off a storm of speculation about the future of Flash for ”PC era” environments. However because of the huge popularity of the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, Apple’s video streaming protocol, HLS, has already been adopted by Android and other platforms such as Roku and Boxee. Apple has submitted their protocol to the IETF for standardisation, but in time it may be superseded, or supplemented, by the more formally independent MPEG-DASH which attempts to bring the best parts of each competing proposal under a single framework. My view on this is that, yes, one day Flash will effectively go away. However, the plain fact is that the vast majority of computers have Flash installed and it has a set of APIs and features well understood by a ‘generation’ of developers. According to Adobe’s own figures, 99.3% of all desktop internet users have Flash Player installed. But, once HTML5 becomes widespread then there is no need for it. The installed base of Flash is difficult to argue against. So when I say that one day Flash will go away, that day is not in the immediate future. HTML5 is gaining traction fast within the development community, but Flash still represents the least headaches in terms of market penetration and therefore the challenge for many web developers is when and how to make the switch. If you are using Flash primarily as a video player, then this problem gets more complex. HTML5 defines how video and audio are to be embedded in pages, but stops short of defining which protocols and formats should be supported. Because of this, it could be argued that the introduction of HTML5 will increase fragmentation in terms of video streaming formats as each browser is free to support its own AV codecs and delivery protocols. And there are plenty of protocols to choose from. Microsoft, 70 | TV-BAY MAGAZINE Content owners keenly want to reduce the number of formats they support. It is not just the practicality of generating and quality controlling multiple formats. It is the expense of storing and delivering assets in multiple formats. If you are a video on demand provider with a sizeable audience, your biggest operating expense is likely to be the content delivery network (CDN) that carries your content to the network ‘edge’ where the consumers are. CDNs rely on caching the video data on edge servers and therefore keeping your ‘cache footprint’ as small as possible by supporting less formats makes economic sense. The company of which I am CTO, Yospace, specialises in providing seamless, frame-accurate advertising replacement in linear or live content streaming online. As part of that we had to develop a means of delivering the streamed content to multiple devices and platforms. I believe that at the moment, Flash still represents the best option for playing video on “PC era” devices, but want to be ready to make the switch seamless to HTML5 video when the time is right. Rather than support the Adobe protocols, we have developed a Flash SDK that allows the Flash player to play HLS video without adaptation. So, instead of adapting our back-end infrastructure to support Flash, we have adapted our Flash player to work with our infrastructure, thus reducing our ‘cache footprint’ and simplifying our back-end workflow. From the consumer’s point of view nothing changes. They will not even realise that anything clever is happening - it just works. Today our Flash SDK supports HLS streaming, but we are working on adding support for MPEG- DASH as this is set to become a staple of most video workflows in future. Under the hood, though, it is providing not just efficiencies for us but a better experience for the user, not least by offering an adaptive bitrate streaming experience that is consistent across platforms. We felt that if we can benefit from this approach for our advertising replacement streaming solution, then others looking to reduce costs in multi- screen streaming would too, so we are now making it available as a standalone product. For content publishers using Flash as their player technology, we believe this component offers a practical stopgap allowing them to modernise their video workflows by making it possible to phase out early the proprietary protocols required by Flash without having to turn their back on a player technology that has the largest audience reach.