More Musings on Web Video (another obsolete essay)

and why I’ve switched to Flash Video

In the last couple of years (I wrote this in 2008) the use of video on the web has exploded, the world of video formats has gotten even more complex and confusing, and Flash and its variants have become one of the most ubiquitous formats for video.

Shockwave Flash was originally a proprietary format for web animation and vector graphics, and originally was used heavily in web advertising. More recently it has become a common format for distributing video.

The most commonly used Shockwave Flash Player is owned (these days) by Adobe, just as the ‘official’ Real Video player is still proprietary to Real Networks. Through the Helix project, however, some of Real’s technology has become widely available, and most ‘open source’ software can cope with Real video files. Similarly there are third-party and open-source players that can handle Flash Video, although the system isn’t quite as straightforward as it is with Real Video.

[Windows Media, of course, is proprietary to that OS, although within the large world of Windows the video format is widely understood and supported, and the players and even basic encoders are freely distributed. It’s not so easy to find a third-party player for Windows Media files, however, and Microsoft has not released much of anything into the open-source arena.]

Flash is somewhat more complex than other video formats because it is not a simple combination of a codec and a file format. The ’Flash Video’ file with the .fvl extension is just a container, and the video it contains can be in one of several different video formats using either free or highly proprietary codecs. The .fvl file itself is typically played through another file which is a complied  ShockWave Flash object with a .swf extension; So the Shockwave player plays a SWF object which in turn knows how to stream the contents of the .flv file. Now Adobe is complicating things by proliferating variations of the .flv filename extension to signal the use of new codecs within the file (f4v for MPEG4, and so on) and future player objects will have to understand more and more types of streams and container filename extensions. On the other hand, nothing is being abandoned, and so if you have a way of producing an .flv file containing one of the original H.263 video codec variants, and you have an .swf player object that can handle them, you’re all set.

Sometimes the video can be complied as a resource within a swf object, a good way to hide or disguise the actual video source. While expensive ‘professional’ software tools can usually prepare/convert video into an .swf file, the free software tools I’ve found produce .flv files only, and require a secondary .swf ‘player’ object which takes the name of the .flv file as a resource parameter.

Real and Windows videos can be presented on a web page by means of a so-called ‘embedded’ player in the HTML code of the page.  These players often require the use of <EMBED> commands which take you to the ragged edge of HTML standards, however,  and you will often find a browser/OS combination where support for one or more of these formats is limited. The browser may not like all or part of the <EMBED> syntax you’re using, or the OS may not recognize or support the player object referenced by the command. You can either build a simple page and hope, or use a lot of HTML tricks to try to hide player objects that the browser/OS doesn’t understand. In any case it isn’t easy.

Within that context <object type="application/x-shockwave-flash"> is a relatively simple and well understood tag, and doesn’t require the use of an <EMBED> tag. One can also use javascript objects to insert and control the player. This is all actually quite simple to do and the required players, javascripts, .swf objects, and sample code are all freely available. The page format I usually use calls a simple, free javascript swfobject.js which is used to invoke an unbranded, open-source player.swf.

It also is an option, naturally, to just allow the user to download the whole file and play it in their player of choice, except that most users these days let their browsers deal with Flash, and may not have a stand-along Flash player available on their system. Also, this is the sort of thing most video exhibitors (YouTube, Google, etc.)  want  to avoid.

In the years since I wrote my original rant about ‘multimedia’ a proliferation of purely digital recording devices have been developed which often produce proprietary or otherwise hard-to-edit digital video files. The development of these devices has been accompanied by a proliferation of web-based platforms for distributing these digital episodes. These sites are usually heavily dependent on advertising, and control the video and its presentation, often using Flash to help disguise or protect the actual video source material. So shooting a short clip and immediately posting it in its entirety to Google or YouTube without knowing anything about codecs, file formats and the like, and without having any real control or interest in video quality, has become easier.

My conclusion is that Flash video can be produced and presented using freely-available tools, offers decent quality, and is compatible with most OS/browser combinations out there. Starting in June of 2009 all Video POTMs will be presented exclusively in Flash format. I have now re-encoded my previous poetry videos (or re-created them as required) with Flash and the new Video Archive uses a simple player with a menu to exhibit them. (Of course, even as I type this in late June of 2009, Firefox 3.5 has come out with native support for HTML5 and HTML5 Video which, according to some, will make the current plug-in world of Flash obsolete. Stay tuned...)

Richard Minutillo
contact rgminutillo at

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