NBC Olympics video without Silverlight?

There’s been a lot of rumor on the Internet regarding the NBC Olympics website’s plug-in requirements and OS/browser support, so I thought I’d shed some more light on exactly what is and isn’t supported.

The NBCO website specifically lists the plug-ins required for experiencing all sections of the website: http://www.nbcolympics.com/pluginsneeded.html

As you can see, only Flash is a requirement for access to the main (non-video) site. To access the video content on the website, Silverlight 2 Beta 2 plug-in or Windows Media Player are required. The various Silverlight supported platforms were outlined in my previous post, but what about WMP support?

WMP “fallback” mode was a key part of the NBC Olympics player design from the very start. Because the Silverlight 1 and 2 media pipeline is  built on top of the Windows Media format (ASF) and codecs (VC-1, WMV8, WMV7, WMA9 Standard & Pro, MP3), any media content produced for Silverlight is also backwards compatible with WMP – so it only made sense to re-use the same streams for WMP as a “fallback” option in case certain users didn’t wish to install Silverlight 2 (after all, it is a beta) or simply couldn’t install it due to non-admin restrictions or due to being on an unsupported Windows OS.

Now, I know some may immediately ask, “Well, if you wanted to provide a fallback option, why not just use Flash as an alternative?” All business politics aside, it’s important to understand that creating all the content in duplicate (and trust me, there’s A LOT of content being produced for these Olympic games) would’ve been extremely inefficient with regards to both time and cost. Not only would all content need to be encoded twice, but the bandwidth of NBC’s direct link from Beijing to New York would need to be doubled, and NBC would need to deploy twice the number of encoders and servers, etc, etc, etc. Supporting Flash would’ve also doubled the engineering cost of designing, implementing and testing the video player application. Speaking from a purely engineering perspective, I can say that getting this project off the ground and to this final stage was an incredibly ambitious undertaking with just Windows Media alone. Supporting a whole additional set of formats, codecs and RIA technology would’ve been nothing short of impossible.

But back to WMP support…

At the moment WMP support is limited to Windows OS only, and Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers only. The good news is that any Windows OS running WMP9 or later ought to work – and that includes even ancient Windows 98SE, Millennium and 2000 systems. However, if using the WMP fallback mode, it is definitely recommended that you use WMP11 (XP, Vista and WS2008) for optimal video and audio playback quality. If you are using WMP9 and WMP10, upon visiting the NBC Olympics video player page for the first time you may be prompted with an ActiveX security dialog asking you to install “wvc1dmo.cab” or “Windows Media Audio Codec.” It is safe to install these updates – and actually required to make the NBCO video player work with WMP9/WMP10. If you don’t get any security dialog prompt, but can’t see any video either – your browser’s security settings might be blocking the ActiveX install prompts. In that case you can install the necessary video codec update manually from http://support.microsoft.com/kb/942423.

It has also been suggested that Mac PPC users might be able to get the WMP fallback solution working for them by installing Flip4Mac WMV. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing that solution is not working, partially due to an apparent incompatibility between the NBCO player Javascript code and Flip4Mac/Safari/Firefox. If this changes at any point, I’ll make sure to post about it immediately.

Finally, for those who do have a choice of installing Silverlight instead of using WMP, what advantage does Silverlight bring to the table? For starters, all WMP-targeted video streams are limited to 650 kbps, whereas the Silverlight plug-in can take advantage of higher-bitrate and higher-resolution video streams, all the way up to 1500 kbps. Furthermore, all WMP playback is single-bitrate only with no dynamic/adaptive stream-switching capability. The Silverlight-based player, on the other hand, can use adaptive streaming (dynamic bitrate switching) for most NBCO content that’s not Live or Rewind. So the short answer to the question of what advantage Silverlight has over WMP is: better video quality and more reliable streaming methods.

About Alex Zambelli

Alex is a Senior Product Manager at Hulu in Seattle, WA. Prior to his current job he was a Product Manager at iStreamPlanet (Turner) and Technical Evangelist for Microsoft Media Platform at Microsoft Corporation. He specializes in video streaming, adaptive HTTP streaming, video compression, and video processing best practices.
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