Open Source TV Broadcasters should jump on the open source bandwagon, pronto
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, January 5, 2000
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling the transmission…we control the horizontal…we control the vertical…For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear.”
Those familiar words opened each episode of ABC-TV’s 1963-64 science fiction program, “The Outer Limits.”
Perhaps it’s memorable because it so aptly described what television was like back then; how just three major television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, controlled virtually everything we saw.
Some say the Internet is about to put the final nail in the coffin of the old-line television networks. They’re destined, we’re told, to give way to an increasingly less centralized Internet-based broadcasting industry that will cater to individual tastes, not the lowest common denominator.
In the future, we’re supposed to have thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of new web-based TV channels to choose from. That’s the vision that has energized untold numbers of new media entrepreneurs, all of whom are banking on the Internet to make it possible for them to reach online audiences unimpeded by any intermediaries.
But it might not work out that way.
The digital broadcasting industry now emerging relies heavily on proprietary software made by just three companies: Microsoft, Apple Computer, and RealNetworks. By controlling the software used for broadcasting over the Internet, those firms have positioned themselves to control all online broadcasts. Unless things change, that could mean we’ll end up with fewer, not more, broadcasters.
Microsoft, Apple and RealNetworks don’t control the Internet’s pipes. But they do control the technology used to deliver moving images through those pipes. If given a chance, it’s likely those firms will exploit their advantage the same way the Big Three broadcasters did during the decades when they had a stranglehold on the airwaves.
Ironically, rather than kill off the broadcasting intermediaries as many hoped and predicted, the Internet may instead be in the process of merely replacing one set of broadcasting intermediaries with another.
There’s only one thing on the horizon I can see that could possibly preserve a diverse online broadcasting industry: the open source software movement.
There are early indications open source software developers are slowing beginning to move in that direction.
The Icecast project, for example, offers free, constantly improving open-source software that enables the creation of Internet-based MP3-format online radio stations. Icecast liberates audio broadcasters from having to go through any one single software company to get their tunes out.
Unfortunately though, similar open source solutions are not yet available for online video broadcasts, which nearly everyone agrees will eventually become a dominant Internet application.
Although most mainstream television and media industry executives don’t seem to realize it yet, preserving their ability to reach viewers online without having to pay off some other company first now depends almost entirely on further progress by media-oriented open source programmers.
The trends that are contributing to the coming recentralization of broadcasting are already quite apparent.
Old-line broadcasting, for example, either over the air or on cable, is certain to be replaced, sooner or later, by digital, Internet-based broadcasting. That doesn’t mean we’ll all be watching TV on our computers, although some of us are already doing that. The bigger still-emerging market will be for TVs that let viewers watch interactive programs that are broadcast over the Internet. It’s a market that doesn’t exist yet. But it’s certainly coming.
There are a few firms, such as Microsoft’s WebTV, that are already working to develop such new offerings, which are still in their infancy. Using your TV to surf the web, however, is only the beginning.
Over time, the line that divides television from the Internet will blur and, eventually, disappear entirely. Say, for example, you’re watching “ER” and the show portrays someone being treated with a new medication. If you want, you’ll be able to locate more information about the new treatment by clicking on an appropriate icon on a pull-up menu, which will contain links to items mentioned in the script, some of which will, no doubt, be sold to advertisers.
At least one company, Wink Communications, is already trying out an early version of this futuristic technology with a few cable TV partners. The applications are understandably still quite limited. But Wink beta-testers in some areas can already, for example, push a button on their remote control during a pizza commercial to order one for immediate delivery.
The Wink system doesn’t take viewers onto the Internet. But once everything is digitized, television shows will almost certainly become portals onto the Net. There are too many e-commerce-related business opportunities associated with that type of broadcasting for it to be anything other than inevitable.
And that, in turn, leads us back to the coming recentralization of broadcasting.
Broadcasting feature length interactive digital programs over the Internet requires one of two things, or, more likely, some of both.
The first are fatter telecommunications pipes, capable of carrying all of the data required at sufficient speeds. Several industries are working on addressing that problem in a variety of different ways, such as digital subscriber lines (DSL), broadband cable modems, and high-speed wireless technologies.
But even the most optimistic futurists concede that it will be a very long time before physical broadband networks can handle, in real-time, the entire avalanche of data traffic coming our way, which includes everything from high-definition television programs to full-length motion pictures. If the industry can’t build enough fat pipes fast enough, and I don’t think it can, then we’re going to need skinnier data.
That’s where streaming media technologies come in. That’s the software owned by Microsoft, Apple, and RealNetworks, each of which have competing, proprietary online broadcasting platforms.
Streaming media technologies use mathematical algorithms to reduce the amount of data that must be transmitted. Viewers unpack the data once it has been received and reassemble it back into pictures and sounds. It’s kind of like reconstituting frozen orange juice by adding water that was removed in the packing plant.
Advanced streaming media algorithms are basically compression/decompression recipes. Take, for example, predictive algorithms. These neat little math formulas dramatically reduce the amount of data that must be transmitted in order to convey a moving video image over the Internet.
It works like this: Computer scientists figured out that some pixels don’t change color very often in a movie or video. For example, if a movie character has blue eyes, the pixels in their eye stays blue. That means there’s no need to transmit the data for a blue eyeball pixel in every single frame. Instead, a clever software algorithm can tell the receiver that a certain pixel, located next to certain other pixels, is blue for however many seconds it takes that character to blink their eye on screen, at which time it changes color, and then changes back, when appropriate.
Building and maintaining physical bandwidth capacity is a never-ending and expensive undertaking. New, more powerful algorithms, on the other hand, are things of beauty that can last, like the Pythagorean theorem, forever, with little or no incremental cost added as more and more people benefit. We’ll still want fatter pipes, no doubt. But thinner data, made possible by ever more creative algorithms, is what makes commercial online video transmissions feasible both now and well into the foreseeable future.
Alarmingly, it’s quite possible, even likely, that only one streaming media format will endure over the long run, just as there is only one dominant format for video recorders. If that happens, we may well look back at all the broadcasting outlets we had in the 1960’s with nostalgia.
That’s why the broadcasting industry and the open source movement need to start smooching it up big time real soon.
The handful of companies that are trying to dominate Internet broadcasting by controlling streaming media technology can only be stopped by better, more elegant, public-domain, open-source streaming media software.
It will take a big push to develop such software in time to prevent the coming recentralization of broadcasting. Fortunately, though, streaming media sciences are still in their crib. There remains considerable room for new ideas and approaches, and for the kinds of breakthroughs that are often a product of collaborative insights.
The open source community banded together effectively to create Linux, propelled in large measure by fears that one company would forever dominate server and desktop computer operating systems.
The looming prospect of a monopoly on online broadcasting should galvanize similar action.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.