Brightcove Attempts to Straddle Front Line in Mobile Video Wars

2/18/10Follow @wroush

Brightcove has a problem. The Cambridge, MA-based startup’s Brightcove 4 video hosting platform, which hundreds of publishers use to distribute and monetize Web video on desktop and laptop PCs, was built around Adobe’s Flash Player. But more and more people want to watch videos on their smartphones, and Flash videos won’t play on most mobile devices. Moreover, Adobe competitors like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are working to sideline Flash in favor of their own competing video formats, such as MPEG-4/H.264 and VC-1. Of particular concern to video publishers (and many consumers) is Apple’s stubborn refusal to allow the Flash Player or Flash-driven applications to run on the iPhone, the iPod Touch, or the upcoming iPad, which can only display H.264 videos.

Brightcove has long been seen as part of the Adobe camp—indeed, founder Jeremy Allaire helped to create the Flash format when he was at Macromedia, which became part of Adobe in 2005. But Brightcove’s customers aren’t wedded to Flash: they just want to make their videos available to as large an audience as possible. During the era of Flash’s ascendancy, going with Brightcove’s platform, which wraps advertising and other advanced features around basic Flash videos, was a good way to do that. But to keep its customers, Brightcove will need to find a way to make their content mobile-ready, and to shield them from all the shrapnel in the video standards war.

That’s part of the intention behind Brightcove’s announcement this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that it’s working on software that will make it easier for publishers to deliver Flash video to mobile devices—and to make money doing so. Technically, what Brightcove unveiled is a software package called “Brightcove Mobile Experience for Adobe Flash Player 10.1.” It’s a version of Brightcove’s well-known video player that runs on top of the forthcoming Flash Player 10.1, which will be the first version of Adobe’s platform built to work well on smartphones and netbooks as well as laptops and desktops PCs.

As Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing at Brightcove, explained to me in a briefing before the Barcelona conference, that means the video content published by Brightcove customers will soon be accessible to users of Android, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Palm, and Nokia (Symbian) mobile devices—all of the leading smartphones except the iPhone, in other words—with all of the advertising, navigation, and others options users would see on a desktop Web browser still intact.

Of course, the Flash experience won’t work on Apple devices, but “we have another solution for that,” Whatcott says. It’s an early version of a player that will transcode Brightcove customers’ videos into the H.264 format for display on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad—but without the advertising or security features built into Brightcove’s flagship player. Whatcott admits it’s not an ideal solution, but he says Brightcove is aware that it can’t ride the Flash horse exclusively forever, and that it wants to be a “one-stop shop” for video publishers, despite the fragmented nature of the mobile device market.

Here’s an edited rundown of my conversation with Whatcott.

Xconomy: Walk me through the main points of your announcement about Brightcove support for Flash 10.1.

Jeff Whatcott: On the desktop, Flash is there, and not only can you play video, but the other details that go on behind the scenes are there to make it a great business—security, subtitling, advertising, analytics, social sharing, calls to action. But until recently, mobile devices had no support for Flash, so people [using phones] haven’t been able to see 75 percent of the videos on the Web. What we’re doing and Adobe is doing is making that rich video experience come to smartphone devices as well. We’re closing the gap between what customers expect and what the default experience might be right now.

If you go to a Web page today that has a Brightcove player in it, the encoding may be optimized for broadband, and the frame rate and the size of the video may be a lot larger than the screen [of your mobile device] can show. The button to play the video may be so small that you can’t even press it without zooming in. With the new solution in place, those problems are solved. The Mobile Experience with Flash Player 10.1 includes three things: a mobile-optimized player template that is specially designed for mobile screen sizes and interaction models; the ability to automatically detect which devices the consumer is accessing with; and mobile-ready transcoding of the video itself, so that the size and the dimensions of the video are optimized for the device.

X: You’re saying that if somebody is browsing the Web from a mobile device, Flash-based videos will be optimized on the fly for whatever type of phone they have?

JW: Exactly. When you browse to a page, what’s going to happen is that you are going to come to a page with a Brightcove embedded video, and the embed logic of that page is going to be intelligent, so that when the page is loaded, it can say, ‘Oh, I have a user here that is on a Droid,’ and because you’re on a Droid, rather than sending you a video player, it will just send you an image with a big Play button on top of it. When they click on that, it will bring up a full-screen video player that can take over the whole device…You put that code in your page and you don’t have to deploy a totally separate website [for mobile video consumption].

X: Will you sell this as an added service, or will it just be part of the Brightcove platform?

JW: It’s free to all of our customers as part of the overall platform. This is in beta so it’s not rolled out to all customers, but this template will be rolled out to all customers later this year, and they can take that and customize it, so that if they want to do smartphone-aware embedding in conjunction with player and device detection, they’ll have the option to do that.

X: When will it be ready for all of your customers?

JW: We’re thinking about the summer time frame for general availability. It really depends on when Adobe ships Flash 10.1 in its final form. As soon as Adobe is ready, we’ll be right there with them.

X: What about people who have iPhones, or pretty soon, iPads?

JW: For Apple devices we offer the ability to create an HTML5 experience that calls video from the Brightcove platform in the H.264 format that the Apple device can play back. That’s available today—you can download and install the One Planet iPhone app as a demo. It’s a very straightforward viewing experience, similar to what you’d experience with any other video site on the iPhone. We also have shipped an iPhone SDK [software development kit] that allows developers to build video applications that are connected to Brightcove’s services. We provide the player and the navigation environment. That’s applicable to the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the iPad as well.

X: When the iPhone came out and had a YouTube app pre-installed, Google gradually converted most of the Flash-based videos on YouTube into an H.264 format that would play on the iPhone. Can’t other video publishers do the same thing?

JW: The largest publishers and broadcasters have the resources to do that. If they can make the business case, there is nothing to prevent them. But the long tail of video publishers on the Web can’t imagine developing parallel services. They need help. Brightcove’s focus is making that business case work for them. If you are a Brightcove customer, you are good to go—that is how we want to do it. That’s an important role that Brightcove can play, taking the cost and complexity out of supporting a fractured mobile environment. We’re trying to play that role here. We’re offering the tools to do both.

X: More and more people, including myself, watch TV shows at websites like Fox.com or Hulu rather than paying for cable TV. But most of those sites are Flash-based—and many of the publishers, like Fox, are Brightcove customers. Do you see your H.264 option as a way to get Fox’s content ready for non-Flash-compatible devices like the iPad?

JW: Specific to Fox, they’re delivering video to the desktop PC in a way that is secure and fully monetized. That’s premium content that they don’t want people downloading and taking. The way HTML5 and H.264 work on mobile devices, including Apple devices, it’s a progressive download of a high-resolution file, not streaming. That is not something Fox is likely to do, until there is a secure wrapper for that. They can go build a custom application for the iPhone OS to protect that content, but that’s work they would have to do. Additionally, they want to monetize that content, so being able to add pre-roll advertising and have it render on the device correctly is not very easy to do with H.264 and HTML5. Not that we’ll never get there, but right now that’s really hard. Those walls are going to come down over time, and Brightcove is going to be investing to make that easier.

X: So the H.264 option is not really equivalent to the Brightcove Mobile Experience for Flash.

JW: We’re not providing a secure wrapper or monetization on the HTML5/H.264 environment today. We would love to. Some of that depends on what happens with the standards. We have to make sure we’re not reinventing the wheel or competing with the standards in any way. We are going to try to invest and innovate around the standards. It’s really early days. The right path forward is not clear, and unfortunately, there are going to be some sharp edges for consumers. Again, for the top tier of the pyramid, the problem will probably be solved. What I am really worried about is the shoulders, torso, and long tail of distribution, where you don’t have a hundred developers that you can throw at the problem, and you don’t have $100 million budgets. That’s typically where customers have come to Brightcove as a one-stop shop for video distribution on the Web. Not having our customers become collateral damage presents a set of action items and challenges for us, but we are stepping up to that.

X: I get the sense that Brightcove is edging away from its traditional identification with Adobe and Flash, and trying to become more platform-agnostic.

JW: I think there’s some truth to that. I would nuance it and say that we do have a strong strategic alliance with Adobe—I personally worked at Macromedia years ago, and ran platform marketing for them, so I know all the people and have a strong affinity to their [software] stack and community. There is a strong relationship there. At the same time, what we provide for customers is a solution for getting video on the Web and distributing it to all audiences. That’s what customers pay us for. We have no platform leanings. Our business is solving the video distribution problem for our customers, and we are going to have to do whatever is necessary to solve that problem. To this point, Flash has been a great horse to ride, but now there are emerging pockets where we can’t ride that horse.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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