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Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of video content on the web, but much of that content has been locked up in non-free formats. Patented video codecs are a big part of the problem, though there are free alternatives (Theora and Dirac for example), they are not widely used. Free software projects often use videos as part of their marketing and documentation, using screencasts to highlight interesting or exciting features of the program for example. But the choices for collecting and distributing video content leave much to be desired for free software advocates.
The Fedora project has been looking into this problem lately, in support of its FedoraTV project. A recent thread on the fedora-advisory-board mailing list looks at various alternatives now that the original host of FedoraTV content, luluTV, has gone out of business. Greg DeKoenigsberg outlines the problem:
The question that follows: "we've got lots of people who are excited about making Fedora videos. What's the best way, in the short term, to gather those videos together to make them accessible?"
He goes on to outline the criteria for finding a near-term solution, starting with the absolute requirements: Ogg Theora format, one-click download, and a robust, stable hosting site. Also important, but not as critical are things like the ability to extract static screenshots for posting in various places, an easy way for community members to know when new videos are available (an RSS feed for example), and a way for uploaders to easily associate a license with their video. These should resonate with most projects that have an interest in providing a video forum for their community as they are likely to have many of the same needs.
Transcoding the videos to Flash to reach the largest possible audience is DeKoenigsberg's "controversial" criteria. It is an unfortunate truth that, even for fairly strong free software proponents, the Flash browser plugin provides the simplest route to viewing online videos. Other solutions exist and work, but require a great deal more effort to enable additional software repositories so that the proprietary or patented codecs can be installed. Interestingly, there were no arguments presented against the transcoding suggestion.
For Fedora, where Theora—or other free codec—viewers are easily available, Flash transcoding might be less of a requirement. Other projects, especially those that are cross-platform, may find that a large part of their community is either unable or unwilling to install additional software to view videos. Users of non-free operating systems are largely unaware of the video codec problems; their OS comes with a no-extra-cost video viewer that just works. Because of that, transcoding to Flash does at least provide a way to present videos that can be relatively easily viewed by free and non-free systems alike.
Various solutions to the hosting problem were discussed, from partnering with archive.org to rolling their own using MediaWiki, Plumi, or some of the technology released by luluTV. One of the suggestions that got the most attention was to create a Miro channel hosted, at least temporarily, on Fedora project servers. Miro has a lot of promise as a viewer and organizer of videos, with a BitTorrent client built-in, but it doesn't solve the other half of the problem: how to allow the community to contribute.
There is, it seems, a growing need for a free community video forum, both from a code and a hosting perspective. The bandwidth and storage requirements of video are enormous, so covering the actual cost will be a big challenge. Places like YouTube allow short videos to be uploaded, but they can only be played back via Flash. In addition, their software is not free, so they only solve parts of the problem.
There are no obvious free solutions, yet, but it is a problem that we will be facing more frequently. Somehow leveraging Miro as a free, cross-platform video delivery system may make the most sense. Providing a way for the community to upload video content into the channels would make for a mostly working FedoraTV and other projects like that. Miro supports free codecs as well, which might help to start weaning people away from their current non-free codec addiction. Then we can start figuring out how to pay for the network and hard disk capacity required.
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