New Video Format

alliance-for-open-mediaSix major tech companies have joined together to create a new video format. Google, Amazon, Cisco, Microsoft, Netflix, and Mozilla have combined to create a new group called the Alliance for Open Media.

The goal of this group is create a video format that is optimized for the web. Current video formats were created before there was wide-spread video using web browsers on a host of different devices.

The Alliance has listed several goals for the new format:

Open Source Current video codecs are proprietary, making it impossible to tweak them for a given application.

Optimized for the Web One of the most important features of the web is that there is no guarantee that all of the bits of a given transmission will arrive at the same time. This is the cause of many of the glitches one gets when trying to watch live video on the web. A web-optimized video codec will be allowed to plow forward with less than complete data. In most cases a small amount of missing bits won’t be noticeable to the eye, unlike the fits and starts that often come today when the video playback is delayed waiting for packets.

Scalable to any Device and any Bandwidth One of the problems with existing codecs is that they are not flexible. For example, consider a time when you wanted to watch something in HD but didn’t have enough bandwidth. The only option today is to fall back the whole way to an SD transmission, at a far lower quality. But in between these two standards is a wide range of possible options where a smart codec could analyze the bandwidth available and could then maximize the transmission by choosing different options among the many variables within a codec. This means you could produce ‘almost HD’ rather than defaulting to something of much poorer in quality.

Optimized for Computational Footprint and Hardware. This means that the manufacturers of devices would be able to maximize the codec specifically for their devices. All smartphones or all tablets or all of any device are not the same and manufacturers would be able to choose a video format that maximizes the video display for each of their devices.

Capable of Consistent, High-quality, Real-time Video Real-time video is a far greater challenge than streaming video. Video content is not uniform in quality and characteristics and there is thus a major difference in the quality between watching two different video streams on the same device. A flexible video codec could standardize quality much in the same way that a sound system can level out differences in listener volume between different audio streams.

Flexible for Both Commercial and Non-commercial Content A significant percentage of videos watched today are user-generated and not from commercial sources. It’s just as important to maximize the quality of Vine videos as it is for showing commercial shows from Netflix.

There is no guarantee that this group can achieve all of these goals immediately, because that’s a pretty tall task. But the power of these various firms combined certainly is promising. The potential for a new video codec that meets all of these goals is enormous. It would improve the quality of web videos on all devices. I know that personally, quality matters and this is why I tend to watch videos from sources like Netflix and Amazon Prime. By definition streamed video can be of much higher and more consistent quality than real-time video. But I’ve noticed that my daughter has a far lower standard of quality than I do and watches videos from a wide variety of sources. Improving web video, regardless of the source, will be a major breakthrough and will make watching video on the web enjoyable to a far larger percentage of users.

Should You Consider Open Source Software?

grayLinux1600There is a big shift going on in the software world that you should keep an eye on. More and more large companies are moving big parts of their software platforms to open source software. The question I raise today is whether or not it’s now time for smaller companies to consider doing the same?

Open source software has been around for decades and used by programming purists who never trusted software from big companies like Microsoft. I can remember free versions of spreadsheets, word processors, and numerous other kinds of free software as far back as the early 80s. The free software never got much traction for a number of reasons, the primary of which is that it made it hard to share your work with other people not using the same free platforms. But a small business, or a writer, or anybody who created content just for their own use was able to get by without paying hundreds of dollars every few years for the latest Microsoft Office upgrades.

Small ISPs were the first group that I can remember using open source software for commercial purposes. In the early days of ISPs, when AOL and Compuserve were signing up millions of customers, there were a few thousand local ISPs that sprang up around the country. These small companies provided more personalized ISP services than the giant companies and catered largely to business customers. Some among these ISPs wrote software that took care of basic ISP functions like operating an email server or a DNS server and made this software available to other ISPs. I can remember recommending this software to telephone companies that were getting into the ISP business, with the reasoning that because it was open sourced it was constantly being improved (and it was free). But many of the telcos could not get over the trust factor of using something ‘free’ and instead went out and spent upwards of $50,000 on software that didn’t even have all the features and functionality of the free software.

Linux is the best-known open source software. At its peak it was only installed on about 1.5% of PCs, but the Linux kernel is now built into android and is on billions of phones and devices. I think it was the experience with Linux that gave large corporations the confidence to start using and even contributing to open source programming. This move has been further pushed by the need to deal with hackers. In the last few years open source software has dealt better with hacking, both because it has fewer vulnerabilities, but also because the software recovers much faster when problems arise. And this makes sense. Widely used open source software has hundreds of smart programmers watching after it and responding during an emergency where large corporate software might rely on only a small handful of programmers. Also, the small bugs in open source software are being tested and tweaked all the time whereas vulnerabilities on commercial software are often never noticed until it’s too late.

Today we are seeing some of the biggest tech companies take the open source approach with some of their software. Companies like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have accepted an open source philosophy for some of their software and have joined a legion of numerous fortune 500 companies that now rely on open source for some of their critical systems. The big companies are growing dissatisfied with the large operating systems like Oracle or PeopleSoft. While there are many things they like about these mega-software systems, there are parts of the big software systems that don’t work well for them and that are too hard to customize for their use. And these huge software systems are incredibly expensive. By the time a large corporation buys a large software system and then pays again to customize it for themselves they will have invested many millions along with having to pay big annual software maintenance fees.

Corporations also started breaking away from the large software packages when they found that more nimble software existed to handle some of their critical needs, such as the way that Salesforce has become a standard for CRM. Once they broke away from part of the big program systems it became easier to consider open source solutions for other needs.

As these large companies allow their programmers to work on open source platforms, those platforms get even better. Where Linux was largely written and maintained by people who also worked other jobs, there are now fleets of corporate programmers who are working to add to and improve open source software.

It’s not always the easiest thing in the world for a smaller company to make the transition to open source. Open source software doesn’t come in a nice neat package with dedicated customer support and training. But when I look around at my clients, I see them still spending a relative fortune on software for such things as billing systems, CRM systems, and hardware monitoring and interface software. Any small carrier who is spending more than a few hundred thousand dollars a year on traditional software might be better off to instead hire a programmer or two and let them find and implement open source software. It’s a bold move, but if it’s working for the big corporations it might well work for you.