It's possible the following post may prompt the Apple police to break down my door in a pre-dawn raid. No, I didn't find an iPhone 6 prototype in a bar. I'm just a guy who's annoyed at the hypocrisy sometimes exhibited by our friends in Cupertino. My latest gripe involves the recently ratified streaming media protocol MPEG DASH.
Behind closed doors, online content providers waste enormous amounts of time, effort and expense repackaging audio and video content to stream over various protocols. You may not have heard of Apple HLS, Microsoft Smooth Streaming, Adobe HDS, RTSP and RTMP, but they are just some of the protocols that need to be considered when trying to support media on every possible device that can connect to the Internet. The explosion of tablets in the past two years has only intensified the problem. We like to call this fragmentation.
DASH, or Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP, has the potential to unify streaming communications. The spec allows content creators and distributors to take a media file and deliver it to any device that can accept DASH, and it supports many of the best features of existing http streaming protocols. The new standard is gaining serious momentum from the likes of Adobe, Microsoft and Cisco among other heavy hitters. A promoters group is actively pushing for adoption throughout the content creation process. This includes the overworked, frazzled editor-on-a-deadline encoding a streaming file all the way to you sitting on the couch eating popcorn watching the video on your tablet.
There are two major players conspicuously absent from the promoters group, namely Apple and Google. While Google is not trumpeting their support, when trolling through Chromium message boards you see the wheels are beginning to turn. Apple, on the other hand, has been very quiet on the subject. Many are suggesting we're headed for a scenario where DASH and Apple HLS exist side by side. Why is this position acceptable?
Let's Flash back (pun intended) to April 2010. Steve Jobs published Thoughts on Flash, an open letter that turned the streaming industry on its ear. At the time, Adobe Flash was effectively the de facto standard for video on the Web. The post took aim at the deficiencies of Flash and chastised Adobe for it's closed, proprietary system. From the letter:
"Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system."
Kettle, this is Pot, can you hear me? Sorry, let's continue:
Two years later, the adoption of HTML5 has come a long way, and this letter was a huge part of that. The frustration for most content creators is that when it comes to video streaming, HTML5 just doesn't have all the bells and whistles of closed systems like Flash and other alternatives like Microsoft's Silverlight. If all of the features existed in the spec, and the browser makers quickly added full support, I suspect 99% of websites in existence would drop Flash video delivery tomorrow. Apple HLS streaming is proprietary. A standard like DASH backed by the Motion Picture Experts Group, in conjunction with HTML5 <video>, would simplify the current environment and allow content distributors to innovate instead of wasting time constantly adapting content delivery methods.
There is no one on the planet that that doesn't admire Apple and what they've accomplished in the past 15 years. However, when you think about the trials Apple endured during the early 90s, will they now take the high road or act like an evil empire now that the shoe is on the other foot ? Keeping HLS in its own world as a competing standard could actually have a negative effect on the industry as content distributors race to support DASH, HLS and legacy protocols for legacy devices. This is an opportunity for Apple to truly put their money where their mouth is and come out in full support of MPEG Dash. The full weight of Apple behind the spec would put adoption of the standard over the top. Content creators, distributors and especially consumers would reap the benefits, and Apple execs could sleep at night knowing they did the right thing.