Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Google Video: Pragmatism at work

I've been following the news about Google switching to Flash Video lately and I am watching with interest their technical implementation of it. While I can mostly only make assumptions some things are interesting.

Google loves Open Source solutions, the cost savings for them are certainly immense. The original implementation of Google Video was using a custom plugin which was based on VLC. VLC in itself is heavily lending code from the ffmpeg project to decode and encode a number of video streams, an effort originally driven by Fabrice Bellard, while most of the real interesting stuff is now done by Michael Niedermayer. ffmpeg incidentally has support for Flash 7 video, supporting the .FLV and .SWF file formats. So the step from going from a VLC based solution to using FLV was probably a small one. At least on the encoding and other server side tasks.

What Google was really lacking with the VLC plugin is in my opinion penetration and a stable client. I tried the VLC plugin and ran into some minor problems on some machines, making me think it would have taken major engineering efforts to make it really stable (granted the Flash Player has its problems too, although more and more problems are fixed as we go along). IMO these are probably the main two reasons Google picked Flash. I do not think that porting the VLC plugin to Mac or Linux would have been such a big deal since the NetScape plugin API is supported on all of them.

Another small issue could have been the license fees which come with encoding MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 streams. Google did not use these format and actively disabled handling of these codecs. Still, the source code for encoding with non patent encumbered file formats is pretty much shared and intermixed with the MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 code, and so probably legally questionable in some countries. Do take my word for it though, this is just an assumption.

There are more reasons though why using Flash Video makes sense for such a large undertaking I think. One of these is that the .FLV file format is by design using the KISS (Keep it simple stupid) approach. It's neither offering the high fidelity or the flexibility file formats like QuickTime or Windows Media offer. But it does what it does well and that is playing back simple video streams with some meta information. In fact it's so simple that was able to write a perl script in less than 20 minutes which determines the length of a .FLV file, not having touched Perl for a really long time. Some customer had troubles interpreting the public FLV file format specification, so this helped them tremendously, they ported it to Java though for performance reasons. ;-) With some simple changes this can be modified to do splitting, merging and many other tasks.

As to Google not using the Flash Media Server, I got to give them some slack. Their whole backbone is probably based on serving HTTP streams, so not handling RTP at this early stage makes somehow sense. I hope though that at some point they'll feel more comfortable with Flash and see the benefits of going RTP once more complex client experiences are planned. On my side I would love to see Google Mail offering the ability to record and view video messages and Google Talk could easily be integrated into that experience also. Flash has everything you need to do so, on most of the common platforms. Certainly on more platforms that are currently supported by Google Earth and Google Desktop ;-) And new ones will be added too...

13 Comments:

Anonymous Emmanuel Okyere said...

Excellent post, aa :)

video is probably the most important reason i'm into flash these days, so I was v glad to see jd's post over the weekend about google's move to flv.

I had published earlier that "with this release, Macromedia (or rather Adobe) positions itself, and the FLV format (together with the Flash Media Server), as (arguably) the most compelling stage for web video"; with all the options opened to google, choosing flv, just as you point to here, underscores maturity/importance/benefits of the technology... truly exciting, and you bet flash/video enthusiasts would be watching what other uses they put it to

btw, thanks for sharing the perl script... now back to the joys of hackery :)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 9:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surprised if the reason google isn't using flashcom (flash media server whatever), is the PRICE. Say they needed 100 servers, each supporting high bandwidth. 100 unlimited license would cost $3,000,000 per year. And I don't think 100 servers would be unreasonable for google. (Various sources say google has somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 servers).

I'm sure macromedia does high volume discounts, but even if they gave 2/3rd off the price, that's still a million a year. Whereas progressive download has no associated licensing costs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 9:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

things will quickly change after FMS2 come out, try the beta today.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 1:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding Flash Video - The max data rate doesn't seem to work.

I want to encode for Modem - Max data rate: 40:

Say if I encode 19 seconds at 720x576, it comes out at over 550kb

If I encode a smaller video with the same max data rate, it comes out with about half the files size.

Strange!!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 2:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They would be crazy to go full Flash only for their mail services. Flashcom is not Open Source and they would be Macromedia dependant.
They should fund RED5 (OSFlash) and we would all benefit.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 3:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They should have bought Macromedia...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 5:16:00 AM  
Anonymous google.dirson.com said...

Don't you think Google choose Flash as a temporary (and, yes, pragmatic) solution while they find the definitive tool?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 7:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Maximum Data Rate" option has inherent limitations depending to what the codec can do. Once the codec is pushed to its limits in the amount of data it will discard, the data cannot be squeezed any further. This is the case for all codecs in all formats.

Full PAL-resolution 720x576 at modem rates is not a reasonable expectation by any extent of the imagination.

Sunday, October 23, 2005 7:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful.
People need it, i consider

Thursday, November 17, 2005 1:11:00 PM  
Blogger Fernando (Nerd Gaucho) said...

Google choosing Flash Video (FLV) for Google Video is a disgrace.

It leaves out plenty of platforms.

Specially since there are truly OPEN, video codecs out there.... like OGG THEORA, for that matter.

Friday, February 24, 2006 7:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fernando: shut up you whingy nerd twat

Sunday, March 19, 2006 4:23:00 AM  
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