Online video has had a storied history, rising from a mere curiosity to become a fixture of modern-day life. While it may be difficult to imagine Internet without video, streaming is a relatively new phenomenon when compared to the web as a whole.
Streaming as we know it began as late as 2005, when Youtube perhaps unwittingly changed the landscape of the Internet. Only 10 years later, 70% of the world’s 3 billion Internet users now stream video. Video is a primary source of entertainment, a powerful way to communicate with family and teams across the world, and an indispensable tool for brands to vehicle their image, products and value to their customers.
This is the history of online video – its heroes and villains, its victories and setbacks, and those who made it what it is today.
In this blog series, we will first offer an overview of twenty years of online video. We will then look at how modern video players work and what broadcasters should look for in an online video player. In subsequent posts, we’ll benchmark some of the most popular modern video player technologies and talk about how they compare.
But for now, let’s begin where it all began.
Geeky bands, plugins and the rise of Flash (up to 2005) history of online video
In a seemingly distant time and place, web was entirely text and pictures. Before the mid-1990s, costs were prohibitively high and bandwidth capacities prohibitively low for video to be delivered to everyday consumer-grade computers.
Over time, however, technology improved. CPU and bandwidth increased to support the data rates required to stream video content; operating systems started coming equipped with the interrupt paths needed for progressive download and for media to buffer more quickly than it played.
The groundwork was laid for modern day streaming.
Internet technologists had been exploring the possibility of video over the web since the 1970s. However, the first live concert broadcast would not come until 1993, with a performance from the techie garageband “Severe Tire Damage” over the internet’s IP MBone (they went on to open for the Rolling Stones in 1994.). In 1995, RealNetworks performed a large-scale online radio broadcast of a Major League Baseball game, and went on to put a video streaming technology on the market as early as 1997.
RealNetworks had initial success but was quickly overtaken both technically and commercially when Microsoft released Windows Media Player. Apple also joined the foray in 1999 with its Quicktime 4 application.
In the early 2000s, these companies vied for market share in a nascent online video industry. While Windows Media Player generally dominated the video landscape, competing formats and codecs often forced customers to install each of the separate applications on their machines (and produced a nasty antitrust scuffle or two). By 2002, broadcasters began to dismay at the lack of consistency, and calls came for a more unified video format.
The Golden Age of Flash (2005-2010)
During this time, Macromedia Flash was quickly gaining ground as a more modular and interactive web design tool than HTML. Its video component, however, initially offered subpar quality and had trouble overtaking WMP. It was only in 2005 with the release of On2 VP6 codec that Flash would dethrone Microsoft.*
With VP6, Macromedia Flash (which was subsequently bought by Adobe) offered comparable quality and superior flexibility. This marked the beginning of the Flash era, when Adobe’s player rose to become by far the most popular means of delivering video over the internet.
According to certain estimates, Flash was installed on over 95% of devices during this time. It quickly became the preferred medium for B2B content, advertising and video gaming. These verticals, along with Flash’s ease of use and widespread compatibility across operating systems (not to mention the host of new browsers that were popping up at this time) made it nearly ubiquitous.**
Moreover, in addition to the plugin, Adobe offered the powerful Adobe Media Server as well as its Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) to deliver the streams, offering broadcasters a streamlined workflow and seamless integration across client devices.
The HTML5 video tag: the upstart newcomer bearing signs of stormy weather (circa 2007)
Despite its many advances, Flash did have a key weakness. While Flash made some effort to open source and encourage collaborative development (particularly through the OSMF framework), broadcasters were still largely obliged to work with a black box proprietary – and licensed – solution. As technology around it improved and licensing policies evolved, this proved to be a thorn in its side.***
As early as 2007, the HTML5 specification allowed for video and audio elements to become an integral part of a webpage. For the first time, embedding video no longer necessitated a third-party plugin, as it was readily accessible and could be played natively in the browser.
For broadcasters who had lost control of choice, customization and their users’ video experience, this brought hope for breaking free of third-party proprietary technologies.
The technology, however, was slow to mature. Browsers only gradually transitioned to HTML5 support (in 2011 only half of browsers were compatible). In the early days, HTML5 did not support content protection or adaptive bitrate or live streaming, which precluded many content publishers from considering this as an option at all. Codecs also proved to be a huge setback to widespread support. Seeing the chance to free themselves from the ties that long bound them to Flash, the major browsers developed and supported competing codecs (there’s enough to write an entire post on the codec wars), complicating what promised to be a simplified open solution.
The adaptive bitrate onslaught and the slow decline of flash (circa 2009 to 2013)
While the Flash empire would hold on for some time, the advent of HTML5, a maturing online video market and the challenge of multi-device streaming led to a gradual yet irreversible trend away from the plugin-based technology.
Apple was key in orchestrating this fall. In 2010, the company started pushing HTML5 heavily and going as far as relying solely on HTML5 delivery in its newly released iPad (check out Jobs’s Open Letter to Flash for reasons why.) and iOS.
Meanwhile, streaming needed to evolve in the face of the proliferation of consumer devices and growing maturity of the market. By the middle of the decade, streaming still relied on the proprietary protocol RTMP. However, at this time, the increasing demand for caching servers and CDNs, as well as the need to offer quality service in varying network conditions and to devices with greatly diverging CPU capacities led to the development of HTTP adaptive streaming.
Apple led the way with its HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) in 2009, followed by Adobe HDS and Microsoft Smooth Streaming. And just as broadcasters feared that they would once again be locked into vendor-specific protocols, MPEG brought hope of unity to a fragmented market in 2012. Taking the best from each of the proprietary ABR technologies, the group unveiled MPEG-DASH, an international standard offering the promise of universal deployment.
HTML5, the Rebirth: MSE and beyond (2013 – ?)
HTML5 video had gained momentum with ABR technologies and the new features that industry players had begun to build to customize the video experience. Then, in 2013, two key pieces of the puzzle would break down the final barriers to widespread broadcaster support. The first was HTML5 Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), a framework allowing the delivery of DRM-protected content in HTML5, and the second was Media Source Extensions (MSE), a more low-level API handling the media segments, which allowed for adaptive playback in both VoD and live.
Today, with the addition of MSE/EME and growing support for MPEG-DASH, the market is firmly moving towards HTML5 video solutions. Many large broadcasters including Youtube and Hulu have made the switch, while browsers such as Chrome and Firefox have nixed NPAPI plugins (meaning Silverlight and Smooth Streaming) and are progressively phasing out support for Flash video and advertisements. MSE is now supported in the latest versions of all major browsers, even Safari. On the codec front, Cisco has rendered H.264 free and open, a step towards putting the eternal codec debate to rest.
The multiplicity of formats, browsers, devices, standards and protocols have far from simplified broadcasters’ workflow in the past several years. However, the general trend towards open standards and modular frameworks has offered much greater liberty to develop and customize their tools, a trend that we hope will continue in the future. The international MPEG-DASH standard is making headway against proprietary ABR technologies, and a consolidation of streaming formats is diminishing to a certain extent the complexity (Smooth Streaming has been largely abandoned, and most broadcasters have moved to HLS instead of HDS in Flash thanks to solid open-source frameworks like flashls and hls.js.).
This customization, as well as the opportunities and challenges it presents, will be the topic of our next post. In two weeks, we will look in to how modern video players work, about the different layers and how they interact, what combination of features to look for in a media engine. Stay tuned as we delve deeper into the latest video player technologies and what they have to offer!
*And while Flash dethroned Microsoft when it came to online video, an unexpected outsider disrupted WMP’s desktop market: VLC, the open-source player with its familiar orange cone quickly became the dominant and most downloaded player in the world at this time.
**Flash’s move to the H.264 codec in early 2008 also helped keep it up-to-date and ahead of the competition.
***Security would also be a major issue for Flash in the coming years, with as an increasing number of vulnerabilities were exploited.