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Online Video Format Wars: News From The Front

By Shelly Palmer (bio), Managing Director, Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC

Adobe, maker of the Flash Media Server and its associated ubiquitous player, has announced that it will support the H.264 format. I know what you're thinking — I lost you at "H." I mean, seriously, could there be a more geek-centric thing to write about?

Stay with me, that's all the tech we're going to cover. You are going to care about this because it is going to seriously impact how you spend your day. You are also going to want to start thinking about how this announcement impacts the path that the media distribution paradigm will have to follow in order for it to adapt to the demonstrably changed consumer media consumption paradigm. Let's review:

  1. Adobe's Flash Player is installed in approximately 98% of all broadband-connected computers. So, if Adobe makes a change to the Flash Player, it is a de facto paradigm shift. This is non-trivial.
  2. YouTube, the largest online video aggregator, recently announced its plans for H.264 compatibility.
  3. Apple's QuickTime, the standard for iPod, iPod Video, iPhone, AppleTV, and their production software, Final Cut HD/Pro/Studio, iMovie, iDVD, etc. are all H.264 compatible.

So what?

Well, for openers, H.264 can really look better than Flash. Let me qualify this statement before you attack. High quality video files are very large. The benefit of Flash is that you can compress the size of a very large high quality video file and keep an acceptable perceived picture quality (resolution). H.264 simply does a better job. In other words, you can find Flash files that look better than H.264 files and vice versa, but if all things were equal with regard to the conversion from a high quality, very high resolution video file, the H.264 file would win by almost every benchmark one might apply.

To qualify the above even further, video compression is both an art and a science. There is no "set it and forget it" mode. It is a job for highly skilled people. A primer on creating files for online video distribution would fill an entire bookshelf, so we won't go any deeper here.

What I want to cover is the implications of Adobe's announcement.

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Since YouTube and MySpace brought social-networked, video snacking to prominence earlier this year, practically everyone I know has started an online video aggregation business. There are literally hundreds of sites with every kind of user engagement gimmick you can think of. My own daily videos, MediaBytes, are syndicated to about 20 video sites including, YouTube, MySpace, Revver, Veoh, Brightcove, Magnify, Vimeo, vSocial, Metacafe, AOL and MSN to name a few.

In order to accomplish this online video "syndication" we need to create a file that is compatible with each of these different sites and, sadly, they are all subtly different. Each has its own requirements for file format and metadata (the data that describes the file). Some take Flash uploads, others like QuickTime files, still others take MPEG4 or H.264 files. It's a nightmare, truly!

We syndicate online video each day using a bunch of proprietary tools that we've built over the past year to make the workflow tolerable, most people do it by hand. However, this is changing. Companies like Veoh and Vidmetrix are offering very good multi-upload tools for online video syndicators. Although they only upload to a limited number of sites, they cover the big ones and new sites are being added often. You can be sure that inside of a year dozens of companies will offer "online syndication" tools and services at every price point to fill every need. My group acts as a service bureau for several media distributors, but before the end of next year the software will be commonplace.

This will be interesting. The metaphor for online video syndication is broadcast television. It works exactly the same way. It takes television broadcast antennas in approximately 210 cities to cover the United States with a broadcast television signal, how many online video services will it take to reach your target audience? Only you can answer the question, but it may take dozens or hundreds. At some point it may take thousands. Before that happens, one or two standards will fall into place. Based upon decisions made by YouTube and Adobe, H.264 is a serious frontrunner. So even if I lost you at "H," you should file this little bit of knowledge in an accessible place. In this, "the year of online & mobile video" the subject of formats and deliverables simply won't go away.

About the Author: Shelly Palmer is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2006, Focal Press). Shelly is also the 1st vice president of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY and Chairman of the Advanced Media Committee of the Emmy Awards. You can read Shelly's blog at http://www.emmyadvancedmedia.com. Shelly can be reached at shelly@palmer.net.

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