Does the World Need Another Media Player?

Adobe released the Adobe Media Player software on April 9, which allows a customizable, cross-platform media player experience. Built using the Adobe AIR runtime, the media player harnessed the power of Flash to create a rich media experience. To complete the experience, Adobe adds support for both RSS feeds and H.264 video, two of the open standards used by the podcasting movement.

What does this all mean? I had a chance to sit down with Deeje Cooley, who serves as an evangelist for Adobe’s Dynamic Media Organization (and formerly as the product manager for the Adobe Media Player). Cooley was tasked with bringing the product to market and he shared insight into Adobe’s motivation for the product and goals for its role in the market. Unlike competing products, the Adobe Media Player has chosen to focus on being a video-only player.

“The growth of video online, the dramatic growth of flash as the video delivery mechanism of choice… there was a ripe opportunity to take advantage of all these events around the industry,” said Cooley. “We started to build an RSS aggregator and quickly recognized that video was going to be a significant media online and so it became a video RSS aggregator. And so that’s really the birth of the Adobe Media Player.”

TV Comes to the Web
Adobe has been tracking the trend of TV moving online. Many users want their TV delivered to them on demand then having to wait for it or searching online. One way this demand for delivered content is RSS (also known as Really Simple Syndication), which allows for video content to be indexed, searched, and subscribed to. Many media outlets from news websites to iTunes use RSS to allow content to be delivered with convenience.

“RSS is akin to having a magazine delivered to your doorstep on a weekly basis. The team was really fascinated with RSS and we started to educate internally around the company that RSS was something significant. We also started noticing some other trends going on in the industry. One was in the TV space, the growth of DVRs and video on demand services hitting 20 percent in 2007,” said Cooley. “Adobe Media Player is fundamentally a video RSS aggregator.”

While the Adobe Media Player is a great vehicle for delivering content from traditional television networks like CBS, HGTV, and MTV, it goes much deeper. The media player shipped with content from podcasting networks like blip.tv, ON Networks, Podango, and Revision3. Thanks to the RSS technology, those participating in video podcasting can easily add the Adobe Media Player as an outlet.

“I’m thrilled to say that Adobe Media Player is based on standards around RSS 2.0, Atom 1.0, the media RSS extensions first promoted by Yahoo. So if you have a standard spaced RSS feed… it’s likely to play in the Adobe Media Player,” said Cooley. “We’ve been working very closely with the ecosystem of video publishing, starting with the video management systems… making sure that those RSS feeds are compatible with the Adobe Media, then making sure that their consoles have support for defining the branding assets that create a unique experience in Adobe Media Player.”

It is the branding assets that are a standout feature of the Adobe Media Player. Content producers can harness features like banner branding bars, custom backgrounds, and network logos. The goal here is to make it easier for content creators to brand and market their content.



“The key difference for Adobe Media player over other aggregators is that it’s specifically designed with the business of content in mind. So if you’re a content creator or a podcast creator, it has mechanisms to provide dynamic branding around your content, both to benefit you, as well as your audience, to really know what context they’re in, but has dynamic advertising built in,” said Cooley. “If you want to do layouts, you have complete control over that through an XML file.”

Next Generation User Data
The player will also support next generation tools for targeting audiences including viewer-centric dynamic advertising and anonymous measurement of content usage data, such as when and how often a video has been viewed. An important factor is also the Adobe Media Players support for protected streaming, advertising protection and video DRM protection.

“If you want to do measurement, understand not only how many people are downloading your episodes, but how many are actually watching them, what time of day, how often are launching it, things like that, the Adobe Media Player has a measurement engine built in,” said Cooley “It’s designed to measure the content, not the viewer, so it doesn’t tell you anything personally identifiable about your audience, but it does tell you what aggregate, how often and how much of your content is being consumed.”



Cooley said that Adobe recognizes the need for balance in serving both content creators and consumers. This includes the ability for both parties to control the measurement tools. Consumers can access the Options area of the Media Player then choose the Privacy preferences (by default the application will measure media usage anonymously).

“The end user can disable the measurement engine, but the corollary is that as a content owner, you can require the measurement engine to be on. So if you really need that measurement to make your business work, you can enable that. And so we think it’s the right balance. If end users want to turn it off, there will limited to content that doesn’t require the measurement engine. It’s a lot like Java script in the browser. If you want to turn that off for privacy rights, you can. Some sites just won’t work unless that engine is on,” said Cooley.

What About Audio Playback?
Notably lacking from Adobe Media Player 1.0 is support for audio podcasts and radio programming. Audio content is a staple of both the iTunes Store and the Zune Marketplace, yet it is notably absent.

“The first version is focused on the video side. It’s called Adobe Media player because you recognize there are other media types,” said Cooley. “Audio, pictures, slide shows, other kinds of media are certainly on our roadmap. We think the Adobe Media Player can be a great aggregator for a lot of different media sites. That said, it won’t support an MP3 podcast in the version 1.0.”


Converting the MP3 audio file will not be that much work according to Cooley. He suggested that content creators could create a still image track to accompany the audio and save the file in a compatible MPEG-4 format. Cooley said that this conversion of audio to video might better serve consumers.

“I am hearing from the field that people are interested in being able to turn on some media on their computer while they pack, or cook, or do some other things, but they still want to have something visual going on that they can check in on and look at,” said Cooley. “I think it’s going to take some time for us to see through more experience how much video needs to be there to make it compelling over an audio experience.”

Universal Formats?
As expected, the Adobe Media Player handles Flash Video files with the quality and performance you’d expect (after all Adobe does own the technology). The Adobe Media Player is designed to allow for easy playback of Flash video, even when the computer is not connected to the Internet (such as on an Airplane). But Adobe made an important decision to support H.264 video, both in Flash and the Media Player.

“With support for H264... that puts us into an ever growing camp of companies supporting that standard codec, both on the computer and on all those devices,” said Cooley. “So from a content creator’s point of view, you can now pick H264 and know that it’s going to play on Mac and Windows, as well as all these other devices.”



The media player is powered by standard RSS feeds. The use of RSS is important as well. It allows the media player to access the content of several video podcasters (provided the shows use the newer H.264 video format.) With minimal tweaks, an iTunes and Zune compatible feed can be converted to work with the Adobe Media Player.

“We chose standards like RSS because it is an emerging standard,” said Cooley. “It’s like HTML. People might know what it is, but they don’t ever see it. They just go to websites and it works. We think RSS is going to be the same thing. It’s the underlying plumbing that end users never see, but it’ll deliver that great value.”

Old Media Meets New Media
The Adobe Media Player tries to strike a balance between the needs of traditional TV networks and new media producers. The Adobe Media Player contains several important features that protect content owners without impacting viewers. The Adobe Media Player offers different types of Digital Rights Management to protect content.

“We actually have two forms (of content protection). One is specifically for the ad support content where the user can add a show as a favorite. It pulls down the episode. It has the ads. But the user doesn’t have to sign in to do anything, but they can’t replace the ads or remove the ads. And if they find any of the local bits, they can’t open them up in any other application,” said Cooley. “If you want to do an a la carte sale or a paid subscription for a rental model, you can still deliver the content using that RSS, but the user has to authenticate at least once, and then policies are sent down for how long to keep the media.”



These types of controls are not new, but have not been readily available for RSS-delivered video. The ruling objective is making the video easy to deliver and use without sacrificing the creator’s intellectual property.

“For example, we’ve got a number of video that Adobe produces internally, and we’re looking to set up integration with a content protection site, it’s explicitly assigned to everybody within Adobe login. So even if the bytes escape our buildings, nobody can play it,” said Cooley. “We have to sign in. I have to sign in with my Adobe login to watch that.”

Additionally, Adobe will offer customizable one-click installers that will let new customers install the Adobe Media Player and subscribe to a new show at the same time. It is extra touches like this that Adobe hopes will attract major content creators who were not being served by iTunes or the Zune Marketplace

One area where the Adobe Media Player lacks is the social media aspect. Virtually every online video site or aggregator offers the ability to recommend videos to friends as well as apply ratings. The Adobe Media Player lacks all social media aspects, a victim of being a version 1.0 product. Cooley said the social media aspects are on the horizon.



“Our 1.0, we had to pull back from a lot of the social experiences. One of the key things we learned as we went out into the field to validate the concept was that it didn’t make sense for us to create yet another social circle,” said Cooley. “The Adobe Media Player had to do for video what an email client does for email accounts in that when I’ve got five favorite shows, when I put three stars on one show, it goes back to that show and I’m communicating with the audience around that show. If I put four stars on another show, it goes back to that show and to that audience.”

Cooley emphasized that these features and more options to connect with the audience will be released soon. At the National Association of Broadcasters conference, advanced options like overlays for and additional interactivity were shown.
“We wanted to step back and make sure that we did this right, so there aren’t actually tags and ratings in the 1.0 product, but it’s very high on the list for subsequent release,” said Cooley. “The challenge is working with an industry that doesn’t understand what is the API set that a client like Adobe Media Player can use to communicate with that audience around each show.”

Cooley said the Adobe is trying to get content creators to understand the many options available to them. One important aspect of the Adobe Media Player is its ability to support serialized content and deliver it in the right order to the audience.

“I think the problem is the fact that most aggregators just pull the last end number of episodes out of a series,” said Cooley. “That’s great for news programs where it’s just timely stuff. But when you start getting into episodic content or structured content in the case of education, you need to see these things in order. And so we have a feature in Adobe Media Player that we’ve applied a patent for, for a variety of reasons that actually allows you to start watching shows (in order).”



Cooley said that the linear serialization support is simple for a content creator to enable. In fact it’s just a small modification to the RSS feed.

“As a content creator, you can add another custom attribute to your RSS feed that’ll give the hint to Adobe Media Player to say hey, I’m a serial RSS feed, so by default, it’ll start at episode one and download one episode. And then as you finish watching that episode, it cues up episode two, and then it cues up episode three,” said Cooley. “If the user wants to say well get me three at a time, it’ll do that. Now what’s interesting is the whole time-based model is going away, and even that notion of I want to kind of dribble out content every three days kind of goes away. I mean if they want to watch it once a week, that’s their pace. If they want to watch five episodes at a sitting, why not let them do that?

The Cost of Creating Content
What gets lost most often in discussion of online video is that making content costs money. In the quest to capture eyeballs, the Internet has embraced giving away content… but this is not a sustainable practice. What is on the horizon is the shift to create financial models that can support the creation of original content that are fair to both the content creators and the audience. Adobe thinks its software will be a key player in this shift.

“The big difference for Adobe Media Player, I think the draw for podcasters is that we really are trying to enable the business of content,” said Cooley. “If you’re lucky enough to have an audience where a retail experience wants your content, great. But if you’re like a majority of the podcasters today, who don’t necessarily have the audience to have that retail experience, and other aggregators aren’t set up to really help you do real advertising, do real measurements and so we’ve really baked in that business of content into the player, itself.”



The standards governing adverting in web video are hotly debated. The Association for Downloadable Media unveiled two draft documents on April 16 called “Advertisement Unit Standards” and “Download Measurement Guidelines.” The future may be video on the Internet, but the many parties involved seem to be having issues agreeing on how this should be done. Adobe is aware of the need for better tracking, so the Media Player should fit in nicely.

“The aggregators that I see out there in the market just really don’t speak to the content business model that I think end users are expecting. TV is free. Let’s not get around it. It has ads. They don’t want people to skip the ads, but I think it’s because the TV industry has had so much control over that that they keep squeezing in more and more ads,” said Cooley. “I think the opportunity is if I could indicate more about myself to my player and have ads that are relevant for me, I’m going to watch more of those ads and enjoy (them).”
An Open Invitation to Content Creators
The Adobe Media Player is open to content creators of all sizes (although the admission process is slower than other directories). How can new publishers get involved? Adobe offers a portal page to offer insight into programming for the Adobe Media Player at http://www.adobe.com/devnet/mediaplayer/. Content creators can also submit their programs for consideration at http://www.adobe.com/go/amp_brsf. Just like the iTunes Store directory, shows must be submitted for evaluation for inclusion in the directory. This review process is important for preserving the reputation of the directory.



“We certainly recognize that the number of podcasts out there is tremendously large. I think the issue from an organization’s point of view is that the catalog is an indirect reflection of us, and so we need to be mindful of what does go in there, not that we see a lot of it, but one or two rogue podcasts being displayed in our catalog could take our catalog and be detrimental to all of our customers. So we want to be very careful of that,” said Cooley.

Adobe is partnering with several long-tail content systems (such as podcasting hosting companies like blip.tv, Podango, and Wizzard Media.) By fast-tracking these hosting companies, Adobe can quickly populate their catalog with compatible content. But this is not the only way to get a show into the player.



“What we’re finding, though, is that you miss these large chunks of (the long tail) by working with video content systems directly. That’s going to be our focus on the short term is working with those content management systems and making sure that we have tight integration between their consoles and our catalog, so that if you’re publishing through (one of them), getting into our catalog is as seamless as possible,” said Cooley “(The number of) people who roll their own XML and do all the content management themselves is fairly (small).”

Cooley said that Adobe would soon rollout a self-submission form for content creators. This would allow podcasters to submit their content for inclusion (much like the iTunes and Zune directories).

Attracting Consumers and New Markets
For consumers, getting the player is going to be easy. Adobe is rolling out a one-click installer. Cooley said that a badge installer will allow end users to click a single button which will install the media player as well as all needed technology and subscribe the viewer to a specific show. The consumer can go from web browser to RSS consumer in a single-click.

“Once they find a show that they like, they can convert from that casual experience to that dedicated experience,” said Cooley.

Adobe also plans to push its Adobe Media Player as users upgrade Flash and Adobe Reader installs. Many expect that the Adobe Media Player will create a similar spike in downloadable video consumption as iTunes did when it added podcasts in June of 2005. Adobe is expected to leverage its install base in corporate and government user-base as well as its broad reach into the consumer markets.

A key need of the market is customizable RSS aggregators. For example, a player that a school could use to attract only approved content without enabling open access to inappropriate content. Similarly a business may want to use RSS video to communicate with its employees but be wary of opening the door to distractions that would impact productivity. The Adobe Media Player (like the rest of the market) is not serving these special use needs, but Cooley said it could soon be.

“A we go out in the field, I’m hearing similar stories and similar requests of I’m a business. People are sitting at their desks. I’d like to have an application for them to aggregate the quarterly all-hands meetings, and the distinguished lecture series,” said Cooley. “I’m speaking about all of the shows that we’ve produced internally for our own company, but not really have users distracted by (other stuff).”

It appears that special groups, such as those in education, religion, business, and government, want a controlled player. These groups want to use the benefits of RSS to aggregate content but to also lock it down and make it more controllable.

They want the beauty of RSS and they want the ability for the content aggregate and work in a mobile environment, but they want to lock it down. Where do you see the biggest need, I guess? With the launch of the media player, what is it fulfilling that isn’t already being met?

“We’re talking a lot about what we would call a white label strategy. On the one hand, we think that end users value having one application to aggregate all of their favorite content. I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to recognize that some people might like a whole variety of different kinds of shows, including a religious show, including a more adult, mature oriented show,” said Cooley. “The idea of having to launch separate applications to watch just that particular piece of content seems detrimental to the whole idea of having a desktop application to aggregate.”
The Future of the Adobe Media Player
What does the future hold? Well the product is definitely a 1.0 release. Several key accessibility features were left off at launch. Traditional podcasting features like show notes and transcriptions are missing. Some accessibility features that usually come standard an Adobe’s web tools are missing as well.



“We don’t have any accessibility features. It’s not because we forgot or we didn’t think it was important. It’s tremendously important to us. I know Adobe’s always focused on that, and Macromedia is definitely focused on accessibility features. There are actually four main accessibility features that we think about for video. One is keyboard navigation, another is screen readability. These are features that we look to with Adobe Integrated Runtime to provide in the future,” said Cooley. “At the video level, there’s actually two. It’s the closed caption support that we want to add, as well as the searchability. All of those are on our roadmap as important accessibility features to have.”

Fortunately the Adobe Media Player is a Rich Internet Application, which will make it easy to update. It has an auto update feature that allows it to check for software updates every time it is launched with an Internet connection present.

“Being an RIA, Rich Internet Application, it has an auto update mechanism built into it, and I think the intent is to have a much shorter recycle. Is it going to be on a weekly basis? No….” said Cooley. “Is it going to be 18 months? No, there’s no way. So there’s going to be a happy medium in there where we’re going to deliver significant new features on a very (short timeline).”



Currently the Media Player works on the Mac and PC platform, but the product is expected to expand to other operating systems. In fact the underlying AIR technology should prove invaluable to the expansion of Adobe Media Player. Adobe is already testing the AIR architecture on Linux.

“The vision behind AIR is to take that Flash architecture and take it outside of the browser, right, and make it accessible in other places. And the first stop is the desktop, so we have (the Media Player) on Mac and Windows. I don’t think we’ve made any secret that other operating systems are close behind. But the goal is for them to not only have it on the desktop, but to have it on other consumer electronic devices.”

At this year’s National Association of Broadcaster’s conference, Adobe showed a living room environment where attendees could use the Media Player on large screen televisions.

“We have a whole business unit, the mobile and consumer electronics business unit just focusing on bringing flash to other devices, other consumer electronics,” said Cooley.

This growth ill benefit both the consumer and the publisher.



“As AIR moves to other operating systems. Adobe Media Player will just run. As AIR moves on to other devices, Adobe Media Player will just run,” said Cooley. “So as the underlying runtime advances and advances Flash and all these other devices, the audience and the opportunity for your content to spread even more across the Internet, across the user’s various viewing devices, your content just goes.”

The Adobe Media Player is immediately available as a free download for Windows and Macintosh platforms from http://www.adobe.com/go/mp.

©2008 by Richard Harrington

Richard Harrington is the author of Producing Video Podcasts from Focal Press. He is a podcaster as well blogger, producing industry sites and podcasts such as FinalCutHelp.com, PhotoshopforVideo.com and VidPodcaster.com.

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