“I need not fear my enemies because the most they can do is attack me. I need not fear my friends because the most they can do is betray me. But I have much to fear from people who are indifferent.” – Russian Proverb
Now I know that most people don’t really care about the mechanics behind playing video files and I can’t say that I blame you for caring more about your content than the technology behind it, but while this post will get into some of the more mundane mechanics of the codec industry, I ask that you stick with me because behind the scenes a war is being fought for control of your very television.
This particular battle has been going on for over 10 years now and centers around something called a codec.
When J.D. Rockefeller set out to monopolize the oil industry, there were several crucial areas where he attacked. He knew that he couldn’t control all of the oil fields because it was literally bubbling out of the ground, but what he could control was the distribution method for getting oil to the end customer.
In building his monopoly he seized assets used to transport oil from raw material to the end consumer. Whether it was owning all of the oil pipelines, so that he could control what oil cost him, owning the railroads so he could dictate how far his competitors could reach or owning the distribution points where consumers bought kerosene to light their homes, he made sure that he had control over every aspect of it. This was good for Standard Oil investors, but wasn’t very good for competitors or consumers.
Online video may not seem like it has a lot to do with the oil industry, but if you look at it’s early development, there are many similarities. So much content is bubbling up that the real challenge isn’t finding video oil, it’s getting it to consumers. Instead of pipes, now we have internet access, instead of railroads there are CDN networks, instead of gas stations, there are operating systems ready to serve us 24 hours a day.
In all of these industries, competition has been limited to a handful of big companies, but the industry that I’m most interested is much smaller than any of these. In the grand scheme of things, codecs (and the filters that go along with them) are the refineries of the video world. They take digital signals and convert them into the flickering magic that appears on our screens. Consumers may not understand the technical details behind it, but they are a crucial chokepoint in your digital video experience.
This battle has been fought on many fronts, but in the end it always comes down to one issue. Those who think consumers should have a choice and those who think they know better. It’s about control over your entertainment experience. Who, What, Where, When, and How you are allowed to consume YOUR media. On one side, well funded corporations with huge financial stakes, on the other, an unorganized patchwork of misfit companies and an army of guerrilla volunteers desperately fighting for a better entertainment experience for all of us.
The war over how video is transmitted may not make it to the front pages, but how it turns out will be important for the success of digital video. In order to better understand how this battle is going, I reached out to interview one of the Colonels in this digital revolution.
Dan Marlin is the CEO and Co-Founder of CoreCodec. His company has built many of the tools necessary to play video files. Before starting his company, he worked for DivX and over the years has contributed extensively to the open source codec movement. He also sits on the board of the Matroska Foundation, an organization dedicated to enabling high definition digital video support for as many consumers as they can.
In our interview, we discussed the growing momentum behind the MKV format, his thoughts on DivX and the competitive landscape of the codec industry and had a passionate discussion around a controversial decision by Microsoft to prevent outside developers from using alternative filters in Window’s Media Player.
In regards to MKV, Marlin had many positives things to say about the momentum that they are seeing. When I asked him about interest in the format, he said that over the last 8 months, they’ve seen a “20 fold increase in the inquiries in regards to more details, about usage about enhancing the current feature set.”
This interest should mean good news for consumers. As more and more customers ask “where’s the MKV?“, hardware companies are starting to respond. When I asked Marlin about how long it would take before we see MKV reach critical mass he said,
“If you look at the adoption scale, you’d probably have to say that we’re at the Ubber Geek stage right now. It will probably take 2 – 3 years. We’re just starting to see the penetration now and it’s been three years since our last release. I would probably have to say two years. Not this Christmas, but the following Christmas you’ll probably start to see more devices.”
One of the more interesting things that came up during our conversations was some of the trends that Marlin is seeing in the MKV adoption curve. It’s no surprise that the anime community was one of the first ones to start using the technology, but I was surprised to learn that countries in Asia and Europe have been more enthusiastic in adopting MKV then in North America. In fact, the trends for MKV adoption mirror the original DivX adoption curve exactly. It’s almost as if the people who’ve been long time DivX users are the first ones to upgrade to an HD experience.
“Absolutely, as a matter of fact it’s mirrored exactly. You could look at DivX in the early days when I was there going back to 2001 and you can actually see the same adoption happening, the anime, the ripped releases from the AV heads, it’s mirroring it, but you have to ask why they are doing it? They are doing it because of the flexibility that it brings to what they’re doing. They can add, especially when it comes to some of the guys that rip DVD and the like and Blu-Ray, they kind of make it their own. They can add menus, there are menus out there that even though they are text, they do very basic things, but there can also be a ton of files inside the container itself, there are info files and pictures you can group.”
While Matroska was technically created by CoreCodec, Marlin told me that he has plans to spin it off into a foundation similar to Mozilla. They plan to offer sponsorships to companies that want to tap into their early adopter customer base. One of the things that I found fascinating throughout the interview was the openness behind such a transformative piece of technology. Instead of monetizing their creation, CoreCodec is building a business around the open source eco-system. Big media companies that believe you can’t build a business around “free”, would be well served in looking at how Core Codec has been able to position themselves by giving a good portion of their technology away.
“we looked at it not looking to make money and that wasn’t really the intention, but even what has been proven now and maybe not so much back then, open source and the ecosystem around open source, there can be profit. Even in a non-profit foundation or a not for profit foundation I should say, which the Matroska Foundation will eventually become, you know is pretty much the same thing. You still can be profitable and make money to support what you developed.”
When I ask Marlin about his thoughts on DivX and how they are positioned in the codec industry, his thoughts were bittersweet, “it’s a love-hate thing.” On one hand, having DivX adopt the MKV container does a lot towards making it a standard. It also helps to speed up the amount of time it will take to get into hardware devices. On the other hand, not a lot has changed since DivX and XviD split paths and now that the open source movement has taken the upper hand, he doesn’t like to see confusion between X.264/MKV and DivXHD.
“Obviously they’ve rethought what they had to do with H.264 which is a migration, but they’re not providing anything of value to what’s already out there. As a matter of fact, it brings more confusion than anything else and that’s the frustrating part because they have their own eco-system with certification and us as a solution provider like with CorePlayer or the CorePlayer platform itself is working with third party OEMs and they are asking questions in regards to DivX and DivXHD and we say the same thing we’ve been saying all along. DivX is Mpeg video and DivXHD is AVC video.”
Of all the topics that we discussed though, the most controversial was the decision by Microsoft to restrict how third party filters work within Windows media player.
To fully understand the issue, you need to know how your computer reads media files. When you click on your file, filters take a look at that data and tries to figure out what to do with it. If it’s audio, they’ll send the data to an audio decoder so your soundboard can play it. If it’s video, then it gets sent to a splitter where the audio stream and video stream are separated. From there a decoder looks at the video data, decodes it and sends it to a renderer for display on your screen.
The controversy revolves around how Microsoft prioritizes filters when you play back content. Currently, if you have several filters installed that can all handle the same job, WMP will look at the merit value of each filter and give preference to the highest one. Since you have the ability to prioritize which filters you want your computer to use, it allows you to create the ideal settings based on your hardware.
This comes in handy if you’re trying to play H.264 video in WMP and it happens to conflict with your video card. Since the user has control over the priorities, you’re able to create a better (more credible) configuration.
With the Windows 7 RC, Microsoft has taken away your ability to prioritize which filter you can use. From their perspective, they get a ton of complaints about filter problems and by making it a closed system it improves the experience for their customers. For the codec industry though, it will reduce the incentive for engineers to continue to work on filters because Microsoft has just essentially seized the entire filter market.
Microsoft will argue that because they allow people to install whatever filters they want on their own media players, that this restriction is somehow reasonable. After all, they’re not preventing customers from downloading another media player and configuring the settings anyway you like, they’re controlling their own product.
The problem with this argument though, is that while consumers have shown that they’re willing to download a codec, by and large, they’ve been very reluctant to download an entire media player. It’s a big commitment to mess with the default settings on Windows and because Microsoft bundles a copy of Window’s media player into every operating system they sell, it drastically minimizes the potential market that companies like CoreCodec, DivX and Nero can serve. This ultimately leads to less investment in codec technology and lower quality video for consumers in the long run.
Take a look for yourself at a real life comparison between video played using Media Foundation’s preferred filters and an open source combination. While the differences may be subtle, there is clearly better focus and definition in the open source solution. It might not be much, but it makes a huge difference when you put it on a 60″ screen. Today, you’d have the option of recreating the ideal settings in WMP, but with Windows 7 Microsoft is now in control.
While Marlin wouldn’t go as far as to accuse Microsoft of using their dominance over the operating system as a way of stifle third party codec competition, he did agree with me when I suggested that this may have more to do with preventing competition then securing their media player for consumers.
“You said it I didn’t, but essentially when it comes down to it, that’s what it is. It’s just frustrating that we all have to go through what we have to do and they could have provided an integrated solution without having to lock out third parties. Period.”
Now we can argue over whether or not Microsoft had an evil intent when they choose to shut down part of the codec industry, but regardless of the motives, competition is hurt by their decision to close media player to third party vendors. When I asked Marlin whether this would hurt his company or whether it was a dam in the river that would fork around the issue, he had conflicting thoughts.
““I think it’s going to be both. Microsoft will probably tell you that there is no problem and then the Core people will fork around it, but you’ve got to question the value of it though. You could still have embedded DirectShow filters, why have them under media foundation?”
Later on in the interview he extrapolates,
“I would say that as long as the default decoders are not set as the default and can be overwritten, I think we’re OK. The question is what steps will you have to go through and will Microsoft allow those steps. Right now you can edit it, they posted the solution online, but Microsoft could bypass that solution with the next RC. So that’s kind of like a wait and see thing. It does affect our business though, it does affect DivX’s business, it affects everyone’s business. “
Now Microsoft is free to run their business in anyway that they see fit and while the issue over filter compatibility within WMP may be an inch in the grand scheme of things, with each inch consumers lose a little bit more control. What’s so surprising to me about Microsoft’s behavior though, is how bold their actions are given the current regulatory climate.
Someone should nominate them for Alpha Dog of the Week because it takes giant brass balls to use your ability to bundle software, in order to shut down an entire industry, while you’re being accused accused of abusing your monopoly by bundling software within the operating system. If the EU understands even a little bit about codecs, I would expect them to be up in arms over this issue because it essentially proves the argument that they’ve been trying to make. Microsoft’s dominance in the operating system is having a detrimental effect on competition in other areas of the software industry.
It could very well be that Microsoft has good intentions here, but given their long history of doing whatever it takes to gain control of the codec industry, I can’t believe that this is by happy accident. This is a company that just spent a ton of money to exclusively webcast the Olympics in their Silverlight codec. The lack of MKV support in Windows 7 prompted the Hack 7 MC blog to write that “Microsoft’s support of the format is borderline neglectful.”
The decision to interfere with the priority filter settings is so Machiavellian I still don’t know what to make of it. My cold banker heart says yes! yes! yes!, but the consumer in me says dear God no. While I understand that these issues are hard to figure out and that there are many ways to look at them, I hope, for the sake of the entire codec community, that Microsoft will rethink their decision to exclude third parties from Windows media player.
For a complete transcript of my interview with Dan Marlin, please click here.