rich media and the standards wars

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Has anyone noticed this section of our course guide?

Sound and video for the web: Issues re video and sound delivery on the web. Overview of compression and techniques for archived media, podcasts and real time streaming.

Of all the course notes, that’s the one that I think has dated most since it was written. So, let’s take a quick dive into why that is, and what it might mean.

Let’s start with the most basic requirement of browser-based media. Can anyone think of a  “Distributed hypermedia method for automatically invoking an external application providing interaction and display of embedded objects within a hypermedia document”?

That’s the summary of a patent. A patent that has recently won the company holding it $585 million dollars in damages from Microsoft — and many other companies are likely to cough up more follow. There’s some pretty remarkable patents being claimed out there – did anyone see the patent claim on XML? Have you heard the term “patent troll”? “Submarine patent”?

Patents wars are just one of the many kinds wars being waged on- and off-line governing the kinds of media we can consume, and whom and how we pay to do so.

How is this relevant to the question of how to encode your video for the web?

Let me start with the trite summary of the course objective of teaching you how to encode video for the web:

To upload your video to the internet, it’s probably easiest to upload it to vimeo or youtube.

Does that tell you anything about what happens to the bits and bytes of your video? No. But it tells you a lot, implicitly, about the state of media on the internet that the easiest way of dealing with it is to let some third party handle all the manifold problems for you.

To come at it from another angle, let’s look at Ian Hickson’s recent announcement that the latest, hottest HTML 5 standard will include no standard video format. On one hand, Apple reckons the open-source entrant, Ogg Theora, is crap, and on the other, the open source browser, Firefox can’t support H.264 because it requires licence fees and Firefox is a free browser. Spot quiz: what format does Youtube use for its videos?

Still interested in the mechanics of building your own video streaming service? you crazy fellow. OK, I recommend lighttpd’s FLV streaming module. Or maybe give plumi a go. The punchline is that there are a lot of “classic” ideas about how to present your media online, but between the standards battles, the different bandwidths, browser glitches and so on, this is a market that you probably want to enter for very specific ideological or technological reasons (breaking down the youtube monopoly, hating their censorship policies, hating iTunes’ curation, displaying on some device that is beyond mainstream support) rather than because it is in any way convenient. Because there is no way of “just” putting your media out there; there are many encodings for different devices, and many bandwidth problems and so on, and they are all very vulnerable to being solved by corporate economies of scale.

Or, to go deeper into that tricky minutiae, you might want to check out this handy presentation that Fred Rodrigues has offered up to the class:

Or spy on a course by Sean Healy down at RMIT which in many ways is a sister course to this.

A lot of this technical detail, for me, is less interesting than the other battles sweeping the mediascape. Consider how the net changes the economics of  distribution of media. (To read/view: Peter Hirshberg on PC vs TV, Dave Winer on podcasts RSS enclosures)

I’m interested in the massive scale and low marginal cost of digital distribution, that is, rather than the tedious technical details. This may end up being relevant to the livelihoods of lots of us in the room. Have you heard of the idea of  disruptive innovation? (see also here What does it mean for traditional means of disseminating media – how abou the much-heralded death of the CD? (On the other hand, how about the 88 million cassette tapes sold each year in Turkey alone? or the endless resurgence of vinyl in unexpected forms?)

On the other side of the coin, if MP3 trading is so notoriously cheap, how do manufacturers wtill profit by it? Are we heading into a world of iTunes stores?

On the other hand, if information distribution is so very cheap, how do manufacturers value-add? Could you or I build youtube right now if we wanted to without its audience base?  (and someone has already written the code) Consider the earlier class on the web as a social landscape.

What do these technologies do for our aesthetics? Consider:

… there’s evidence that consumers are simply adapting to the MP3’s thin sound. Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University, recently completed a six-year study of his students. Every year he asked new arrivals in his class to listen to the same musical excerpts played in a variety of digital formats—from standard MP3s to high-fidelity uncompressed files—and rate their preferences. Every year, he reports, more and more students preferred the sound of MP3s, particularly for rock music. They’ve grown accustomed to what Berger calls the percussive sizzle—aka distortion—found in compressed music. To them, that’s what music is supposed to sound like.

How about our ethics?

Bonus Reading

  1. Bower, Joseph L. & Christensen, Clayton M. (1995). “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1995
  2. WhatWG blog
  3. Pitchfork’s Social History of the MP3
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