As I have worked with video service providers that are trying to upgrade their offerings to include online and mobile services, I’ve seen bewilderment about the maze of codecs, streaming protocols, and player apps as well as content protection technologies that those service providers need to understand. Yet a development that took place earlier this month should help ease some of the complexity.
Microsoft’s PlayReady is becoming a popular choice for content protection. Dozens of service providers use it, including BSkyB, Canal+, HBO, Hulu, MTV, Netflix, and many ISPs, pay TV operators, and wireless carriers. PlayReady handles both downloads and streaming, and it is currently the only commercial DRM technology certified for use with UltraViolet (though that should change soon). Microsoft has developed a healthy ecosystem of vendors that supply things like player apps for different platforms, “hardening” of client implementations to ensure robustness, server-side integration services, and end-to-end services. And after years of putting in very little effort on marketing, Microsoft has finally upgraded its PlayReady website with information to make it easier to understand how to use and license the technology.
Streaming protocols are still a bit of an issue, though. Several vendors have created so-called adaptive streaming protocols, which monitor the user’s throughput and vary the bit rate of the content to ensure optimal quality without interruptions. Apple has HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), Microsoft has Smooth Streaming, Adobe has HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS), and Google has technology it acquired from Widevine. Yet operators have been more interested in Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (DASH), an emerging vendor-independent MPEG standard. The hope with MPEG-DASH is that operators can use the same protocol to stream to a wide variety of client devices, thereby making deployment of TV Everywhere-type services cheaper and easier.
MPEG-DASH took a significant step towards real-world viability over the last few months with the establishment of the DASH Industry Forum, a trade association that promotes market adoption of the standard. Microsoft and Adobe are members, though not Apple or Google, indicating that at least some of the vendors of proprietary adaptive streaming will embrace the standard. The membership also includes a healthy critical mass of vendors in the video content protection space: Adobe, BuyDRM, castLabs, Irdeto, Nagra, and Verimatrix — plus Cisco, owner of NDS, and Motorola, owner of SecureMedia.
Adaptive streaming protocols need to be integrated with content protection schemes. PlayReady was originally designed to work with Smooth Streaming. It has also been integrated with HLS, which is probably the most popular of the proprietary adaptive streaming schemes. Integration of PlayReady with MPEG-DASH is likely to be viewed as a safe choice, in line with the way the industry is going. That solution came into view this month as BuyDRM and Fraunhofer IIS announced an integration of MPEG-DASH with PlayReady for the HBO GO service in Europe. HBO GO is HBO’s “over the top” service for subscribers.
For the HBO GO demo, BuyDRM implemented a version of its PlayReady client that uses Fraunhofer’s AAC 5.1 surround-sound codec, which ships with devices that run Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The integration is being showcased with HD quality video on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” series. Users can connect Android 4.1 devices with the proper outputs — even handsets — to home-theater audio playback systems to get an experience equivalent to playing a Blu-ray disc. The current implementation supports live broadcasting, with VOD support on the way shortly.
PlayReady integrated with MPEG-DASH is likely to be a popular choice for a variety of video service providers, ranging from traditional pay TV operators to over-the-top services like HBO Go. BuyDRM and Fraunhofer’s deployment is an important step towards that choice becoming widely feasible.