Amen Corner: Players Combine Streaming Formats; You Win
Posted Sep 7, 2007

Those of you who stream your worship services or put pre-recorded content up on the web for parishoners and visitors to view at a later date know the hassle of choosing a streaming video format. There are lots of choices out there, but some are better than others for particular tasks. You might, for example, choose Flash Video 8 as a playback or live streaming compression format, but also have to encode your content into MP3 or AAC for audio-only podcasts and H.264 for video podcasts.

You may also have read about how the streaming codec war is becoming a player war. In the beginning, each codec had its own player (Real Video had Real Player, WindowsMedia had the WindowsMedia Player, etc.). But these days, most players—with the exception of the WindowsMedia Player—can play formats from a variety of competitors. The thought is that capturing eyeballs for advertising or the convenience of a single player heightens a competitive advantage that makes up for the loss in format use.

A practical example of this occurred in late August with Adobe's announcement that it was incorporating the H.264 video codec (based on a derivative of the MPEG-4 standard, which in turn was based on the MPEG-2 codec that is used in DVD-Video and satellite TV) and the AAC+ audio codec (a slightly better version of the low bit rate audio codec used in most iPods).

Adobe understands the reasons to support an industry-standard alongside its Flash Video 8 codec in its most recent Flash Player. The Flash Player already has almost a 99% market penetration, which means that almost any desktop or laptop on the market—including Mac and Linux systems—can play SWF and FLV files (FLV is Adobe's three-letter extension for FLash Video). But Flash Video 8 and the FLV "wrapper" have some limitations that Adobe wished to address, as well as send a message that the player is more important than the codecs being played in it.

“Why now? Short answer: Because you wanted it,” said Tinic Uro, an Adobe engineer who is putting the code together for the next Flash Player, on a recent blog post. "Long answer: We've been working on this for a while and this was planned to be part of the next major revision of the Flash Player . . . It seems many [of our customers] are trying to make choices when it comes to video technologies right now. We wanted to make sure that we would offer the best possible choices to them and send a signal that we are willing to embrace industry standards.”

Adobe's willingness to embrace industry standards means one version of files can be created for podcasts as well as for streaming and on-demand playback. Tinic points out that users can load and play the typical iTunes-supported files (.mp4, .m4v, .m4a) as well as QuickTime-based H.264 (.mov) and lowerbit rate mobile video files (.3gp). This means that a file can be played back in iTunes or on an iPod as well as via the Flash Player, although Adobe recommends renaming the files to use the .flv file extension if you want Flash Player to be the default playback application.

“The Flash Player itself does not care about file extensions,” says Tinic. “You can feed it .txt files for all it matters. The Flash Player always looks inside the file to determine what type of file it is.”

Even though Adobe would like to sell you Flash Media Server (which streams live and on-demand content and can stream any of the files created in true H.264 and/or AAC formats), they’ve provided a way to have the files play back from a standard web page instead of from the Flash Media Server. Files set up on a standard web page will be available via progressive download, which enables the video to begin playing after about 10% of the file has been downloaded, rather than waiting for the entire file to download before playback.

A word of caution about the use of progressive downloads, though; Tinic points out that Adobe video creation tools (such as Premiere Pro and After Effects) are designed to “currently place the index information at the end of the file” which requires the entire video file to be downloaded before playing. Tinic, however, suggests a third-party tool called qt-faststart.c, written by Adobe's Mike Melanson, which can apply a fix to files so that the index is at the beginning of the file. Tinic also says Adobe is working to modify its video tools to allow this option from within Premiere and After Effects.

So why all this dense information on streaming codecs and players in a column about houses of worship? To shine a bit of light on the fact that streaming just got a whole lot easier for those of you who are considering it but weren’t certain which codec or format to use. As the player wars continue—especially with the advent of Blu-ray and HD DVD support in many players—expect to see even the holdouts embrace standards such as H.264 and AAC in their players. And rest assured the day is coming, just like it did with MPEG-2 and DVD, when it won’t matter what player your parishoners use as long as you serve them up a standards-based video and audio format.

Tim Siglin, co-founder of Transitions, Inc. is a contributing editor to EventDV and Streaming Media.