Moonlight 2.0 – Help wanted

Jason Perlow of ZDNet wrote a very supporting article of Silverlight and its handling of the NBC Olympics website, but that’s not the reason why I bring it up here. Jason points out something perhaps less obvious but far more interesting that bears repeating:

We need Silverlight on Linux – and we need your help to make it happen.

Jason writes:

Yeah, it would have been nice to be able to watch the Olympics event playbacks and live feeds on Linux using Moonlight.  But right now, Moonlight only supports Silverlight 1.0 apps, and NBCOlympics.com is implemented using 2.0. As Novell’s chief Mono/Moonlight developer, Miguel de Icaza told me several weeks ago before the NBCOlympics content launch, “Work on this has started, but it will take a lot of work. And sadly, there are very few people willing to contribute to make this happen on time.”

That’s incredibly disappointing to hear, because here’s just a sample of the type of feedback I’ve been seeing from Linux users regarding NBC’s use of Silverlight:

“It’s infuriating to be summarily left out just because I choose to use a superior OS, Linux, instead of the crap M$ puts out. Oh well, I guess NBC doesn’t care how many viewers–and, yes, we ARE viewers as well, not just people online–they’re alienating by their idiotic decision to go with a Micro$oft only application.”  – from a comment on an LA Times blog

“I triple boot. XP, Vista and Ubuntu. I refuse to boot into XP or Vista to watch this online. If they don’t care about Linux users then I will return the favor and find alternatives.” – from a comment on Digg

“Nevertheless, NBC’s official stance is to support Internet Explorer and Firefox for Windows and the Mac, but there is no Linux support. This seems absolutely foolish. How hard is it cater to users of Firefox on Linux?” – from a blog post on OStatic

So on one hand we have Linux users who are infuriated because they feel left out, and on the other hand we have a statement from Moonlight project leader indicating there is not enough interest and support in the OSS community to deliver a solution. What’s going on here? Some might say it’s just a case of Linux users growing too complacent, or use this as an example of a counterproductive anti-Microsoft bias in the OSS community – but an article on the not-very-subtly named Boycott Novell site hints there might be more to it than meets the eye. As it turns out, the OSS community doesn’t seem to like Novell very much either.

My own opinion is: if you want it, help make it happen. Miguel is waiting for your e-mail. 

I’d love to hear everyone’s opinion on this, especially from Linux users and active OSS contributors.

About Alex Zambelli

Alex is a Principal Product Manager at iStreamPlanet Co. in Redmond, Washington. Prior to his current job he was a Technical Evangelist for Microsoft Media Platform at Microsoft Corporation. He specializes in video streaming, adaptive HTTP streaming, VC-1 and H.264 video, and video processing best practices.
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12 Responses to Moonlight 2.0 – Help wanted

  1. Anonymous says:

    The slant is not anti-Microsoft or anti-Novell; it is anti-stupidity. Unfortunately, infuriated language does not always reflect that. And no, the stupidity in question is most likely not that of the NBC website developers, but rather of their bosses.

    If your goal is to deliver high quality, ad supported streaming video to as large an audience as possible, then any solution that requires Silverlight or Flash, or even Java, is stupid. Unless you invent a new streaming protocol or video codec, you have no business requiring people to access it using your own brand of software. In fact, both MMS streams and WMV9 codecs are supported on at least half a dozen platforms that the NBC website refused to service at the moment. If you’re not convinced, check out Mplayer and the number of platforms it runs on.

    If you want people to see ads, all you have to do is make them convenient and ask people to look at them. If you’re not happy with that, for goodness sake, porn websites have come up with a solution years ago! No, NBC should not require people to go to a sponsor’s website and find the third word in the second paragraph. But the idea of requiring a personalized token, delivered together with an ad, before delivering the video is sound and should be much easier to implement than an entire web application platform.

    The reason that the lure of NBC’s Olympic coverage does not attract more developers to the Moonlight project is that they realize that it will be wasted effort. Today it’s Silverlight, tomorrow it’s Silverlight+. In any case, it’s extra time spent writing code just because someone decided to use a dumb solution to an already solved problem. Problems that have already been solved by projects like mplayer, xine, mozilla, etc.

    If you think that the infuriating comments you’ve found are unjustified, think about how you would feel if you had to cross a bridge that could be easily crossed on foot, but instead is prefixed with a burly enforcer and a sign reading “bridge must be crossed on hands and knees… just because we feel like it”.

  2. Thanks for the comment – I appreciate when people are able to rationally look at both sides of the argument.

    One thing that I think you may have overlooked is that Web 2.0 has changed the rules of the game even when it comes to media delivery. Website owners are no longer interested in just supplying a barebone video experience that happens in some standalone player application. Also gone are the days of sticking a QuickTime or WMP video rectangle in a bunch of HTML goo and calling it a day. Video delivery and playback on the web have now become a part of a much bigger interactive experience.

    I think a lot of people look at Silverlight and think it’s just another player plugin or a substitute for WMP. It’s not. It’s MUCH more than that. Silverlight wasn’t invented because the world needed another media player. What Microsoft is trying to do with Silverlight (and Adobe with Flash) is build a whole RIA platform – and media is just a fraction of that. So if you look at Silverlight/Moonlight and think that it’s solving a problem that’s already been solved by Mplayer or Xine – I say you’re only looking at one small piece of the puzzle. The way to think of Silverlight is more like you might think of .NET Framework or X Window (X11). It allows one to build applications – in this case on the Internet – and media playback is just one of many features.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Alex, I understand that your title has Evangelist in it, however I couldn’t care less about Silverlight, no matter how how much potential it has, which is probably a lot. And I hate to disagree with you, but I have to do so on several points.

    > One thing that I think you may have overlooked is that Web 2.0 has
    > changed the rules of the game even when it comes to media delivery.
    > Website owners are no longer interested in just supplying a barebone
    > video experience that happens in some standalone player application.
    > Also gone are the days of sticking a QuickTime or WMP video rectangle
    > in a bunch of HTML goo and calling it a day. Video delivery and
    > playback on the web have now become a part of a much bigger
    > interactive experience.

    Sorry, wrong. Web 2.0 has GIVEN websites the ability more cool and funky stuff on their pages. It HASN’T TAKEN AWAY the ability to do simple things that were possible before. And (hello!) the NBC website already does exactly that when faced with a Windows user who hasn’t installed Silverlight. So, I’m sorry, but new rules do exist, but the old rules haven’t gone anywhere.

    Given a choice between straightforward video delivery and video + a rich interactive experience, most people would choose the latter. However, a much larger number of people than you’d expect would choose the straightforward video, possibly by necessity or possibly by preference. What the NBC website has done is to completely screwed these people by REMOVING THE FIRST CHOICE.

    Now, this conversation could be me just expressing my opinion, but I hope it is more than that. I hope that in its course you realize some of the basic mistakes that were made in the design of the NBC Olympic website and that you will use this understanding, in whatever capacity you have at Microsoft, to influence future decisions to prevent similar mistakes.

    Here are the points that I’m trying to make, and I hope that you acknowledge them, or at least show why you disagree.

    1. There is no technical problem with delivering high quality streaming video (with or without ads), to most of the platforms currently shut out by the NBC Olympic website (including older Windows, older Macs, Linux and other Un*x variants, OS/2, and many others).

    2. As is, the NBC website is genuinely pissing off a large number of people. A lower estimate on this number is thousands, if not tens of thousands of people.

    3. The reason they are pissed off is that they know that the site’s video content could have been easily made available to them, with minimal effort from the site’s designers, but instead the designers decided to simply shut them out.

    4. Pissed off people are bad for business: (a) they will hate your company, (b) they will not use your products, (c) they will create competing products just to piss you off in return (or just to have something they can finally use), (d) they will not be reached by the advertisers who are sponsoring the video content.

    5. A lower estimate of the number of pissed off people is in the thousands if not tens of thousands. Yes, absolute numbers matter (instead of just percentages), because this segment of the population is stuffed with high earning professionals with lots of disposable income.

    6. Since pissing people off is bad, it should be avoided in the present and the future.

  4. I understand that some people aren’t happy about NBC’s site design and technology choices, but as the old saying goes: “You can’t please all the people all the time.” Somebody is ALWAYS going to be pissed off no matter what NBC does. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive “who cares about a few thousand unhappy users” kind of way. I’m simply pointing out that if a different choice had been made, perhaps YOU wouldn’t be complaining, but in all likelihood I would’ve been having a similar conversation with somebody else equally unhappy for an entirely different set of reasons.

    Consider this:

    Parallel universe scenario #1:
    NBC decided to openly offer mms:// links to all video streams so that anybody with a capable player can view them on their own.

    Likely result: Somebody would complain about NBC using Microsoft proprietary format (ASF), protocol (WMS HTTP) and codec (WMA Pro) – all of which have been reverse-engineered in projects like Ffmpeg and Mplayer, but the quality of those implementations leaves something to be desired.

    Parallel universe scenario #2:
    NBC decided to completely avoid Silverlight and Windows Media, and went with Flash instead, using H.264/AAC and RTMP protocol.

    Likely result: Somebody would complain about NBC using yet another proprietary technology.

    Parallel universe scenario #3:
    NBC decided to avoid Silverlight, Windows Media and Flash – and instead offered all video streams in patent-free, open source Theora video, Vorbis audio, Ogg container and RTSP protocol.

    Likely result: The majority of the country would be going, “Huh? I have to download WHAT?” :)

  5. Anonymous says:

    We are all going to die, so why live? Of course, there are many excellent answers to this question. Equally excellent answers can be found for this question: someone is going to complain, so why develop high quality software or web content? Just as it is worth developing technology to make people live longer, it is worth using EXISTING technology to reduce the number of people who are unhappy with your product, and the reasons for why they are so.

    Counting the number of people who are unhappy and their reasons is an objective metric and can be in all seriousness applied to any “parallel universe scenario”.

    In your scenario #1, there may be two legitimate complaints: (a) can’t view the content because the technology is not available, (b) the content is delivered in proprietary formats. Thanks to existing open source media players, the number of complaints due to (a) drops through the floor. Complaint (b) is legitimate, however, it does not carry as much weight since these formats have been made usable, through reverse engineering or any other means.

    In your scenario #2, Adobe’s support of the Flash plugin for many different platforms mitigates reason (a), although not as much as in scenario #1. Reason (b) still carries the less weight the more people are capable of accessing the video content.

    I don’t know if scenario #3 is feasible today. Whether Theora technology is ready for prime time, I’m sure you know better than I. Concerning the complaint you cite, all the more reason to support Ogg/Theora in Windows Media Player, so that this option is open in the future. When it comes to understanding and explaining what needs to be downloaded and installed, Linux and other platform users can take care of themselves.

    Hey, it looks like scenario #1 is a clear winner! Now, wouldn’t it have been nice to have this discussion in the design stages rather than after the fact? It would probably have cut down the number of complaints by a factor of 10, or even a 100.

    And, lets not forget that any of the alternatives that you’ve outlined, as well as many other possibilities, already eliminate the most vehement complaint that you’ve received so far. That complaint is that NBC and Microsoft throw out a loud and clear message of “WE DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU” message, every time the website displays a “your platform is not supported” message. Now, it may be true that NBC and MS don’t care, but they should. Or, at least, the advertisers who are paying for this whole thing should.

    BTW, I’ve once again noticed that you are very concerned about the quality of the user’s experience. The same concerns came out in the comments of Ben Waggoner on another blog, as well as in the discussion of the full screen playback discussion on the Silverlight forum you linked to. This is a great attitude to have. But, how about having your priorities straight?! First, give the user a choice, whether to have the content/feature or not, only then worry about quality. Let the user decide whether to make the quality/feature tradeoff for him or herself.

    Finally, I’ve made clear the points that I want to make (although, you have yet to explicitly acknowledge most of them). I’ve even suggested a minimal effort way to address the complaints of users of platforms currently unsupported by the NBC Olympics website, that could be implemented RIGHT NOW. I have no idea whether you are taking these seriously or not. While we are still having this conversation, why don’t you tell me what you intend to get out of it? I’d be happy to oblige, and hopefully at least one of will not have wasted their time on this discussion.

  6. David says:

    Lets turn this about.

    If Microsoft wants Silverlight to be available to everyone then Microsoft should write the code. Why are you leaving it up to someone else to write it. You want me to run a closed source media streamer on the OS of my choice then you need to write the code.

    Are you an OS company or a software company!

  7. Anonymous,

    Microsoft’s involvement in the NBC Olympics project was one of a technology provider – not designer. We provided the platform (Silverlight), we provided some technology pieces (adaptive streaming, player logic), project coordination and technical consulting – but we didn’t design or implement the website or the player UI. As with every project, we had to work within the requirements and practical limits of the project set by the customer (NBC). Providing open MMS links for everyone to stream was not an option (hence I only mentioned it in a “parallel universe” scenario) that was ever on the table. I won’t go into too much detail, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how paranoid content providers are about having clear, unprotected video content available for anyone to stream (or steal). The paradigm still hasn’t changed much in the digital video world like it has in the digital audio world.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Alex, what you say makes a lot of sense. That’s why, from the very beginning, I directed the blame at the “bosses” of the NBC website project. If you had to work within certain requirements, then that’s what you had to do. However, it might be a good idea to just come out and say that, instead of proclaiming that it is simply technologically infeasible to support Linux, Mac, and other less common platforms. I think you should keep that in mind in the future, if you keep your current title of “evangelist”.

    But, I still have to correct you on an important point. You have in fact provided open MMS links for everyone to stream, you just haven’t advertised that fact. I am actually very grateful for this option, since it allowed me to enjoy NBC’s Olympic coverage (which is great by the way) from day one, without ads, without touching Silverlight or even Windows and without restrictions on recording streams. I also know that many others have taken advantage of this situation as well.

    There is an important lesson here. The lesson is that there are technical requirements that are hard to satisfy. However, that doesn’t include supporting Linux and other platforms. Instead, that includes DRM and security through obscurity (that is, they do not accomplished their stated goals). I hope that Microsoft is honest with its clients about this point when proposing technological solutions. Maybe you were honest with NBC, maybe you weren’t, but the bottom line is that you’ve cost them a significant amount audience for their ads.

    On this note, I hope this conversation has been useful for you, and I anonymously sign off…

  9. herve says:

    hi all of you,
    thx a lot for this debate that was interresting to read.
    i ll have a simple question like david:
    why not microsoft release a version for linux?
    this way they control the technology and make sure that it works propely :)
    best regards
    herve

  10. Probably because of too many complex intellectual property concerns. Microsoft doesn’t really do GPL open source projects so this would be a serious precedent. Also keep in mind that Moonlight is based on Mono (the open source equivalent of .NET Framework) which Microsoft hasn’t officially blessed yet.

    I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s certainly not a trivial matter of just churning out yet another release.

  11. herve says:

    thx for this information alex!