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Adobe's Flash developers need to learn from Saudi Arabia

By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller on March 23, 2007 (7:00:00 AM)

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The biggest video problem open source developers need to solve isn't with video editing software, but with Internet video delivery, which is currently dominated by Adobe Flash. There are several good reasons why Flash is the most popular method of putting video on the Internet, but Macromedia (since purchased by Adobe) made a horrible decision when it released Flash 8. Its choice of a proprietary video compression codec makes a free replacement for Flash not only desirable, but necessary -- and I mean for business reasons, not just because of software ideology. If Adobe's management had done even a little cursory reading about the history of the oil business and OPEC, its Flash product line would not be heading for the ripe, green pickle that is inevitably going to hit it in the face within the next few years.
Let's start by talking about why Flash is so popular:
  • Instant gratification -- a Flash video starts to play within a few seconds after a user starts to download it, which means a Flash file appears to be streaming even when it's not.
  • No special servers needed -- both .swf and .flv files are simple binary files that can be delivered by almost any popular Web server software.
  • Good ratio between clarity and file size -- there are higher-quality methods of delivering video over the Internet, and there are video compression methods (codecs) that yield smaller file sizes, but Flash currently offers the best compromise between these two important parameters.
  • Network effect -- more computer users can view a Flash video without downloading a new viewer program than can view videos delivered in any other Net-usable video format. In other words, a major reason Flash is popular is that it's ... popular.
Flash 8 and 9 are superior to earlier versions. Video encoded to Flash 8/9 specs is noticeably clearer, and takes less bandwidth to deliver, than video encoded to specs for earlier Flash versions. This is because, as of version 8, Flash stopped using the H.263 video compression codec and started using the VP6 codec developed by On2 Technologies.

In August 2005, Flash developer Tinic Uro wrote a heavily-read blog post about why VP6 was chosen over the competing H.264 codec, which many people consider to be at least as good as VP6.

H.264 has patent encumbrances, but licensing for it is -- let's say -- "fuzzy" enough that it has been incorporated in many open source software projects. There is also a GPL-licensed implementation of the H.264 specification called x264 that may or may not be legal in countries that enforce software patents, but is widely used without visible legal repercussions (so far).

There is currently no widespread, even halfway legal, method of encoding VP6 without purchasing proprietary software either directly from On2 or from one of its licensees.

Popular desktop Flash encoding products that use VP6 range in cost from On2's inept Flix Standard at $39 (for Windows and Mac only) through the moderately competent Flix Pro (for Windows and Mac only) at $249, up to Flash Pro 8 from Adobe at $699. There are even higher-priced Flash conversion products available for desktop use -- none for Linux -- but the additional money for them is generally justified (according to their vendors) by additional production features. Flix Pro does just as good a job of the actual Flash conversion as any of the others. There is really no reason to buy a pricier product if all you want to do is make clear, well-compressed Flash video from popular video file formats. (Sorry, Ogg Theora is not supported even though it uses a variant of On2's own VP3 codec.)

Now let's forget about encoding Flash on the desktop and talk about doing it on a server. Most people don't worry about how their video magically changes to Flash when they upload it to YouTube, Veoh, Blip.tv, or any of the other video hosting services. These companies do the encoding on their servers. When they started out, just about all of them used ffmpeg, which ran just fine on your basic Linux + Apache server combination, and turned out decent Flash video using the H.263 codec.

But ffmpeg for Flash 8 or 9? Forget it. There is no On2 VP6 codec license available for ffmpeg available for free or for pay, according to phone and email conversations I've had with On2 salespeople. Instead, as noted in a list of non-ffmpeg video file conversion software on the videotranscoding.com main page, "On2 Flix Engine and SDK for Flash encoding ... is pretty much the only solution to create Flash 8 files server side."

And now we come to the reason I'm comparing the current state of VP6-based Flash with the oil industry: On2's Flix Engine and SDK pricing is far too high for small video entrepreneurs.

Here's a key paragraph in an email I got from an On2 salesperson in response to a query I sent about pricing:
Flix Engine licensing is available for an annual fee of $3,750 per server. The license fee includes all software updates and maintenance releases as well as 1.5 hours of email and phone-based technical support. Additional support is available for $200 per hour.
That may be an OK price for YouTube and some of their more prosperous VC-backed competitors, but it's a huge barrier for a small, garage-based, out-of-pocket video startup.

And that price may not apply to all users. Another section of that same email detailed another, even more onerous licensing scheme:

Initial licensing fee of $12,500

-- includes 5000 encodes/uploads
-- includes 3 hours of support
-- includes software updates/maintenance releases for one year

You can renew the support/updates contract at the beginning of year 2 for $2,000 per year.

After you've used up the initial 5000 encodes, you would buy a license to additional encodes based on the following:
Qty of Encodes / License Fee
5,000: $1,800
25,000: $7,600
50,000: $11,200
250,000: $37,500
1,000,000: $125,000
10,000,000: $937,500

An encode is 2 minutes or less. For an encode greater than 2 minutes you divide the total minutes by 2 and round up to figure how many encodes apply to that one video. For instance, a 7 minute encoded file would count as 4 encode units.
The way the licensing would work is you would keep track of the number of encode units of videos uploaded to your site via the Publisher and would report that to us every 90 days. If you report more encode units than you had a license to you would need to purchase an additional block immediately. Did we read that right? $12,500 for up to 5,000 video encodes, each less than two minutes long? That is one heck of a steep fee -- way worse than $3,750 per server -- for someone thinking about running a small video hosting service for low-budget indie movie producers or for folks who make video features about their communities, i.e. that citizen journalism crowd we keep hearing so much about.

Saudi Arabia's oil ministers and other smart people who influence oil pricing on the production end of the business have historically warned that setting oil prices too high would encourage the US and other oil-consuming countries to institute drastic conservation measures and turn to other energy sources. Keep the prices low enough that they are at least halfway affordable, this reasoning goes, and no one will have the political or entrepreneurial will to compete with oil. But let oil prices get out of hand, and consumers will think of ways to use less oil, which will hurt the oil-producing companies and nations in the long run.

There is obvious truth to this line of thought. When gas hits $3 per gallon in the US, hybrid cars and other fuel-economizers sell like mad while gas-hog SUVs sit on dealers' lots. At $2.50 per gallon, at least some fuel-guzzlers sell, especially if they are discounted heavily. Drop gas prices back to $2 or less, and V-8s are "in" again.

Right now, courtesy of On2, the cost of high-quality, server-based Flash video encoding is at the software price equivalent of $3 per gallon. This means that it's harder for small entrepreneurs to go into the video hosting business, and also means that a lot of video hosting services and people who want to be in that business are casting about frantically for an alternative to Flash.

Luckily for Adobe and On2, one of the more promising Flash alternatives, Java-delivered video, may also have patent problems. The company working hardest to promote a Java-based "playerless" video delivery system, VX30, seems to think it should get $1,995 per server, although one of the company's higher-ups told me via email that they would go as low as $595 for a small startup.

I had trouble loading and playing VX30 Java-delivered video in both Linux and Windows, though, and my one experiment with its standalone desktop encoding software (for Windows) was disheartening; it crashed too frequently for me to complete even a single trial transcode. This is the sort of thing you accept, perhaps, when playing with an immature open source project, and maybe (assuming you have the skill) you can help that project fix some of its bugs. But VX30 is 100% proprietary, and patent-encumbered at that, so working to improve VX30 software is not an option. If anything, this company is a barrier to the development of Java-based online video delivery because of developers' need to walk carefully around its patents.

Meanwhile, I know of at least one well-funded open source effort aimed at replacing Flash that was started (and financed) in large part because of the overpriced On2 codec, just as many of the current US government (and private industry) efforts to find replacements for imported oil are due to high oil prices.

The funny thing is, it probably wouldn't be a big deal for Adobe to include both H.264 and V62 codecs (and possibly Ogg Theora and even Xvid) in their official Flash player. They could still recommend the costly V62 codec and provide expensive tools to work with it. And they would no doubt find plenty of buyers for those tools, just as they sold plenty of copies of Flash Pro while ffmpeg was out there for free and perfectly capable of encoding pre-8 Flash.

But will Adobe take this step? Or will it continue forcing VP6 and its high costs down the throats of everyone who wants to deliver Internet video with Flash? I suspect it will take the latter course. And because of this, before long we will soon see more than a few viable alternatives to Flash, developed by open source people, that will usher in a whole new era of open video on the World Wide Web.

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on Adobe's Flash developers need to learn from Saudi Arabia

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Put Down The Crack Pipe And Quit Whining!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 03:57 AM
So, lemme summarize and see if I'm understanding you correctly. You feel that Adobe and On2 pricing is too high and you resent the idea of you having to pay so dearly for it. To garner support for your indignation, you drag in FOSS and that it won't be able to play in the Flash field because of the 'onerous' pricing and licensing requirements. But, according to you, Adobe can fix it all by using a cheaper codec or offering cheaper pricing so that you can afford Adobe Flash or you can get a gratis alternative in the guise of libre software.

Boo freaking hoo, Robin! Boo freaking hoo!

First, Adobe doesn't give a rat's ass about whether you or anyone else can produce Flash video for free. They are all about maximizing how much you pay and they just spent a boat load of money buying Macromedia to facilitate the extraction of money from everyone's wallet, including yours. They are basing this strategy on OPEC's new thinking; squeeze them for all you can. Which is why gasoline prices are again rocketing towards $3 per gallon and why Exxon is planning for yet ANOTHER record profit! But, just to go one step further, Ogg Theora which you mentioned, is free and it's lack of cost has done absolutely NOTHING to advance its adoption. Even most Linux users don't bother with Ogg and its ridiculous name.

Second, Flash is an abomination that was forced onto the web by Macromedia marketing and web developers that just couldn't stand to not have a dancing, twirling, singing home page. You don't have to use it and it is definitely not the only or best format for video. The fact is that there are several very good quality video formats that will play on most all OSes using the bundled multimedia players. Read - no need to install additional players. The fact that you chose Flash for your videos was entirely your decision so you have no one to blame for your displeasure but yourself.

Third, no one, not even Adobe, is forcing you to use Flash 8/9. You can continue to use Flash 6/7 and or the FOSS stuff that supports it. In fact it is people like you, always perpetuating the upgrade treadmill because you just can't do without the ability to render the play button in the newest wiget, that cause an annoyance with Flash consumers where they are required by various websites to download and install the latest 7, 8, 9 Flash players in order to view content that doesn't even need to be Flash in the first place! The irony is that this is a download and install that you claim isn't required when you use Flash to distribute your content because 'everybody already has a Flash player installed'.

Finally there is your YouTube argument again, it's a pointless one. YouTube's days are numbered. The recent billion dollar lawsuit that Google now faces will likely be the end of its meteoric rise. But, even if YouTube continues to flourish and continues to rely on Flash, they can continue to use the "old" version 6 or 7. This will cost them no more money, save their users from having to download and install the new player and still be compatible with those that already have the new player installed.

If you put down the crack pipe and look at the problem, you will see that the problem is entirely your own. But, it is easily fixed by not using Flash in the first place! So, quit whining.

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Re:Put Down The Crack Pipe And Quit Whining!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 08:36 AM
If you are indie can't you just encode in whatever and then post it on YouTube and let them pay Adobe and On2? You get noticed and then someone else pays them for you.

This perceived problem didn't seem to get in the way for all the people who produced all the inane crap that's on YouTube.

Conversely, Adobe and On2 should have to come to your house and make your crappy videos more interesting. For free.

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Re:Put Down The Crack Pipe And Quit Whining!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 06:25 PM
you miss the point, he's saying just predicting that Adobe made a mad business decision to charge so much.

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Re:Put Down The Crack Pipe And Quit Whining!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 25, 2007 04:21 AM
First, Adobe doesn't give a rat's ass about whether you or anyone else can produce Flash video for free. They are all about maximizing how much you pay and they just spent a boat load of money buying Macromedia to facilitate the extraction of money from everyone's wallet, including yours. They are basing this strategy on OPEC's new thinking; squeeze them for all you can. Which is why gasoline prices are again rocketing towards $3 per gallon and why Exxon is planning for yet ANOTHER record profit! But, just to go one step further, Ogg Theora which you mentioned, is free and it's lack of cost has done absolutely NOTHING to advance its adoption. Even most Linux users don't bother with Ogg and its ridiculous name.

True most don't use ogg (i do because i buy hardware that supports it - also some record companys now include ogg rips on cd. At last)

Off topic $3.00 a gallon here in the uk it,s $8.00 give or take a couple of cents

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"The funny thing is..."

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 04:16 AM
No, the funny thing is that you spend all of this energy complaining about flash but manage to overlook the fact that there is a Free theora-in-a-java-applet product called cortado which has been available for a good long time.

It can solve all of your content-publishing problems without you even having to pick up the phone to a proprietary vendor.

And this VX-30 product you're talking about is made by the now infamous "Maui X-Stream Inc.". Remember them?

Wouldn't be surprised if they shared some code.

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Re:"The funny thing is..."

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 26, 2007 07:35 AM
Mod up<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;-)

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Why can't you use Flex?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 05:26 AM
Use ffmpeg to get an flv out of any video format, then use the _free_ flex sdk (linux version) to wrap your flv with playback controls.

As Martin Lawrence likes to say, "What the pro'lem is??"

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This is more of a drool than a rant

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 02:22 PM

You seem to be experiencing a severe brain outage, Roblimo.


Developing a competitor to Flash 8/9 is for losers (though probably someone will do it). Sure, the prices are high because there's no competition. But as soon as competition appears, Adobe will lower its prices just enough to retain 90% of the market.


Meanwhile, it's a non-problem for content producers: they can just continue to use Flash 7 which can be cheaply produced.


It's a problem for Linux-on-the-desktop advocates, because every so often a Linux user will click on a site that says "Flash 8 required", and realise thay can't have it because they run Linux. Maybe that's what got you started. But in that case, you should have made that your story instead of the BS that you actually wrote.

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Re:This is more of a drool than a rant

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 06:59 PM
Huh?
You can download flash-9 for linux here dude:
<a href="http://www.adobe.com/shockwave/download/download.cgi?P1_Prod_Version=ShockwaveFlash" title="adobe.com">http://www.adobe.com/shockwave/download/download.<nobr>c<wbr></nobr> gi?P1_Prod_Version=ShockwaveFlash</a adobe.com>
Version: 9,0,31,0
Platform: Linux

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Re:This is more of a drool than a rant

Posted by: Administrator on March 27, 2007 11:21 PM

You forgot - he' stalking about __encoders__, not __decoders__.

Encoders for most major O/S's are available, but creating the content is a different matter.

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ZOMG I Forgot This One

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 24, 2007 09:09 PM
Robin, I'm so sorry. I got all wrapped up in my crackpipe post above and completely forgot to mention the perfect solution. I had heard somewhere that Microsoft was working on a Flash competitor/replacement and <a href="http://www.microsoft.com/products/expression/en/expression-blend/features.mspx" title="microsoft.com">here it is!</a microsoft.com>

It's in beta right now which is good because that makes it gratis and it's Windows only, which is also good since that's how you create your videos!

So, there's no need to cry about Flash when you can get the even newer and "better" and gratis Microsoft Blend. As for players, I sure that they will include the players in Windows Vista SP1 or 2 and Mplayer or Xine will liekly incorporate the W32 codec real soon™

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Re:ZOMG I Forgot This One

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 25, 2007 08:46 AM
The fact that it is for windows only is only good if you serve your content using a windows server.

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People here are a bunch of jerks

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 25, 2007 02:07 AM
Seriously, reading the comments, they seemed to be bent on finding fault than discussing the article. The popular websites of tomorrow are small websites of today. If small entrepreneurs can't afford flash and an open alternative exists, then the open alternative will be used. When more people use an open source project, there will be more developers working on it. Take a look at Photoshop and the Gimp. Everyone wants to use Photoshop, but since it has a high price it is either pirated or replaced with the Gimp. It's a very simple argument and does not even say that the open source alternative will become more popular, just that the pricing scheme can hurt adobe in light of open source projects to be. The lack of providing cheaper encoding will force people to find another way.

BTW in response to a previous post that missed the point of the article, I'm a linux user and I LOVE OGG! I almost always use Vorbis and I use Theora when I can.

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Your Naive Viewpoint Is Not Based In Reality

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 25, 2007 10:54 PM
People are taking issue with the article because, contrary to your naive viewpoint, it is not about FOSS or the advancement of FOSS. The reality is that Roblimo has gotten his knickers in a knot over the pricing of Adobe's latest Flash licensing , which he hypocritically lusts for. Angered by the fact that he will have to forgo the newest Flash or rewrite his OSTG budget to afford it, he has attempted to cloaked his rant in a rather transparent, except to you, claim that the new pricing is some how unfair to the FOSS community and that Adobe will be the loser in the end, another wishful and transparent taunt. Adobe and it's pricing model for the Flash suite of products will have zero impact on FOSS. Indeed, if Adobe priced Flash out of existence, it would be a great thing for the web in general. But, the reality is that Robin lusts for some craptastic feature in the new Flash and he can't afford it or justify the cost to his boss.

Your view is both utopian and naive and Robin's article was specifically designed to appeal to people with such a view. However, there was too much venom in Robin's keyboard when he wrote this one and he was not able to conceal his rant or its motive from those with a more realistic view of the software world.

Regarding your use of Ogg, that's great and I hope you enjoy it. But, relative to the widespread use of Ogg, so what? As an analogy, I can present you with numerous individuals that are deeply commited to OS2 but, that doesn't change the fact that OS2 is hardly used by anyone or that it is utterly doomed and has been for years! Again, you are being naive by assuming that because you use Ogg that it is widely used or that its use will increase. The reality of the matter is far different.

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You are right - almost

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 27, 2007 03:18 AM
People have been pronouncing OS/2 dead since about 1991. Those folks are almost right in 2007... Eventually, they will be completely right. Does this mean the Ogg formats will actually be dead in 16 years?

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Great Article...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 26, 2007 01:00 AM
Your article is right on target on this issue and I think this is a great piece. Another macro-wide issue is that no matter what we do in the FOSS community we cannot control market forces/consumer/corporate choices. Arguably these economic actors put Adobe in the position it is in as a result of the many factors you outlined. As a result we cannot force the "invisible hand" to implement technology X over technology Y as consumers/companies/etc are generally unaware of technology. In an more expansive sense never mind them understanding FOSS issues on any deeper level. Legal headaches of proprietary software and patents are also a major hurdle. Add to this the fact that monopolistic players common practices are not only encouraged, endorsed and are not regulated under the current US administration. It begs the question how regulators allowed Adobe to buy Macromedia. It really begs the necessity of an open source FOSS project/technologies achieving dominance in the marketplace and supplanting the likes of Adobe/MS/etc. WE have some of the best and brightest within the FOSS community. It can be done. Hell 10 years ago people made fun of Linux and look where it is now. You do identify a significant market opportunity.... =)

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Sleeping W3C, Mozilla, .. ?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 26, 2007 01:45 AM
Whats up with W3C for defining a common videocodec for internet browsing ?
maybe choosing ogg vorbis, flac and theora.

Why we have standards for text layout, images (png and jpeg) and svg for vector grafic,
but no common format for audio and video content<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-(

why doesnt the mozilla fondation step into the future and include components for open audio and video formats in their browser ?

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Re:Sleeping W3C, Mozilla, .. ?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 26, 2007 08:34 PM
You mean something like this?

<a href="http://my.opera.com/haavard/blog/2007/03/05/1" title="opera.com">http://my.opera.com/haavard/blog/2007/03/05/1</a opera.com>

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Re:Sleeping W3C, Mozilla, . Opera is closed source

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 27, 2007 02:27 AM
Yeah but Opera is closed source so who cares.

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Free solution available

Posted by: Administrator on March 28, 2007 01:12 AM
What about <a href="http://www.flumotion.net/cortado/" title="flumotion.net">http://www.flumotion.net/cortado/</a flumotion.net> ?
* Ogg Theora / Vorbis
* lightweight java player
* python + Gstreamer server
* GPL

Sounds like a winner to me...

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maybe Adobe intended there to be no open source so

Posted by: Administrator on March 25, 2007 02:34 AM
never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence<nobr> <wbr></nobr>...

HowSomeEver<nobr> <wbr></nobr>... What if Adobe in concert with other enterprises intended that there should NOT be any possible open source solution? I can certainly imagine that to be true. Worse, I don't think I'm being paranoid about it either.

What is the solution? I don't have one, other than not viewing Flash8/9 videos and telling authors/publishers of same to go push a rope.

JMHO.

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