It’s a really exciting time at Unicorn Media right now. Unicorn Once has been a run-away success for us across the world of mobile devices and connected TVs: the traffic is growing like crazy and there’s no end in sight. Recently though, we have started to have a lot of requests to help our customers with their traditional desktop traffic. It’s a bit of a strange twist of fate because we got out of the player business entirely a while back, but of course we are happy to help! As we sat down to think through the approach we were going to take to bring Unicorn Once to the desktop, it became pretty clear early on that we didn’t want it to be a spring-board for us to start developing players again so we started polling our customers to see where they could get the most value.
What we found surprised us a bit in a couple ways. The most significant was that despite all the hype around HTML 5, most of our customers are still very firmly behind Flash technology on the desktop. Their reasons varied, but some of the common themes were around security, lack of universal browser support, variability between browsers and efficiency in delivery. The biggest challenge around moving to HTML 5 on the desktop, it seems, is the fact that the only really practical delivery strategy is progressive download- which means that it becomes very easy for someone to just “view source” in their browser and download the content directly. The other big challenge with progressive download is that the user’s browser is actually downloading the file as fast as they can in the background – which means with today’s nearly ubiquitous high broadband speeds, a lot of extra video content can be downloaded, which can drive up CDN costs dramatically.
So, having verified that Flash is alive and well in the desktop world, we started to examine the different ways we could deliver content. Of course progressive download isn’t a great option for all the reasons outlined above so we focused on streaming protocols. With Flash, the traditional choice has been a protocol called RTMP and Adobe has also released a new protocol called HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS). The venerable RTMP protocol, though, is starting to show its age and is being rapidly deprecated by most of the big CDNs out there because it requires special servers to deliver it. HDS on the other hand, is a modern HTTP based protocol that can take advantage of caching layers inside ISPs and the massive HTTP architectures that have been built by the CDNs. The only real caveat behind HDS is that it requires using the OSMF framework to build your Flash player: but the OSMF community has grown substantially over the past few years so this didn’t seem like a huge roadblock and we decided to focus our efforts on HDS, and recently released support for HDS to Unicorn Once.
One thing kept bugging us though; now that there’s all this great support in Flash for HTTP protocols, might it be possible to actually deliver Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) protocol to Flash as well? This would, of course, have great benefits for our customers already using Unicorn Once for delivery to the myriad of devices (iPhone, iPad, Roku, Samsung, LG, etc) that already support HLS, since those HLS fragments would potentially have higher cache-ability in the CDN, and thus better performance. Well, it turns out it was indeed possible to deliver HLS to Flash, just as we had thought. We found a great project that had already been started, but apparently abandoned before more advanced features like dynamic stream switching had been added. We announced today that we have extended that project and will soon be releasing the updated version to the world as an open-source library called the Once More Project. The decision to entirely open source this software (our first contribution to the open source community) was made primarily because we think this kind of technology needs to proliferate throughout the entire industry. In keeping with the overall vision for Unicorn Once, we wanted to ensure that our clients have their choice about how they want to deliver their content on every device- and because we believe in open standards like HLS. Our hope is that by building a community around this technology we can start to contribute to the sophistication and quality of the client software in the market that Unicorn Once delivers to.
For anyone interested in contributing to the project, or who just want to get more information, we have setup an email address to our newly formed technical evangelism group who will be helping to curate the community: firstname.lastname@example.org
To read the press release, click here.
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