2014 – The year of open standards?

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With each passing year, web technologies are moving to more open standards, and this is a good thing. For decades, many industries have relied on Open standards to facilitate interoperability, but have often been frustrated by their attempts to modernize and bring their business to the web because of the lack of open standards.

The broadcast industry is one example where this is clearly the case. Open standards have allowed for interoperability between cameras, switching boards, multiplexers, and even all the way down to the radios and televisions in consumer’s homes. Even as broadcasters migrated from analog to digital broadcasts, a suite of standards, DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) was in place to accompany the change.

However, as broadcasters work to bring their content and their business online, they are faced with several competing standards, few of which are open. Internet media delivery today tends to happen in one of two ways, either through the use of Real Time Protocols (such as RTP, RTSP, RTMP, etc.) or through the use of HTTP Delivery. The HTTP delivery option is the most popular today, for a variety of reasons, including the robust internet infrastructure already existing to support HTTP traffic. However, there are several competing non-open standards which comprise the vast majority of HTTP Delivery today.

Among the popular closed standards are Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), Adobe’s HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) and Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming (MSS). Each of these standards is viable, and in extensive usage today, they all have strengths and weaknesses, but they all share a single common weakness – none are an open standard.

There is hope on the horizon. MPEG-DASH exists as an open alternative to these closed standards. Two of the three companies with proprietary closed standards have been actively involved in the formation and promotion of DASH. These efforts have been clearly successful, as DASH delivery of content is becoming more and more prevalent – for example, Netflix, Hulu and YouTube have all released versions of their content via DASH delivery. Through the efforts of Browser manufacturers, Media Source Extensions (another open standard), have become available in many browsers allowing delivery of DASH content without any additional plugins required.

Unfortunately, HLS remains the most common delivery format in the US, and Apple (the author/owner of HLS) has shown no interest in supporting MSE in their browser. A tipping point is clearly on the way, which will see a massive growth in DASH delivery. Eventually Apple will be forced to embrace the current open standard, or risk losing content which has made their platform so appealing. The irony of course is that Apple has done so much marketing touting themselves as leaders of the “open web” movement, and they are the long holdout stalling the success of this open standard.

My wish for the New Year is that companies continue to embrace open standards, and bring about an ecosystem where all industries can easily participate in the web economy.