The Future of Television
A few days ago, version 1.0 of "Miro", an open-source application, was released. It is a video player with a nearly-perfect design combining the powerful VLC video player, an intuitive UI design, BitTorrent distribution, and a thoughtful approach to copyright law. And it will change Television forever.
What is Miro?
Miro is a video player. You launch the program and it displays a list of "channels". Each channel contains a series of videos. Some could be short (a couple minutes, like YouTube videos), others longer (like whole 1-hr TV episodes). Click on a video and it downloads (unless it pre-loaded) then you can watch it.
The VLC video player
Video today is a mess of different formats. Wikipedia currently lists 22 different commonly used video codecs, and that's not to mention the other levels of formatting aside from the codec itself. There are numerous sorts of DRM applied and different delivery mechanisms. Aside from the passionate videophiles who invent these encoding schemes, no one really cares what format they have -- they just want their video to play properly (and look decent!). Instead of having to remember what to view using Real Player and what to use Windows Media Player or iTunes for, we'd rather have something that just knew how to play everything. VLC is an open-source (GPL'ed) video player that handles lots of different formats. It plays small or full-screen and the controls are intuitive.
Intuitive UI Design
The UI for VLC is really quite easy to use. "Channels" (really just RSS feeds with video content) appear on the left-hand side of the screen. They can be organized into folders if desired. Viewing a channel shows the content of that channel -- in blue if not yet downloaded, orange if currently downloading, and green if already downloaded. Click on a blue item to start downloading it, or click on a green item to play it. You can also set a channel to automatically download new videos when they appear -- use this option in combination with running Miro in the background and you'll find your video already downloaded and waiting for you when you get there! And there is a search and ratings system for discovering new channels.
Miro also allows one to download video from several major video sites, like YouTube, Google Video, Revver, and so forth. For these it provides a search capability for finding content. You can even save a search as a "channel" in the main Miro interface. Moving a step beyond what YouTube and all the abilities to pre-load video, save it on disk, and so forth are all available even for this content.
Video files can be fairly large. Posting such a file on your server to be downloaded by a couple of friends is quite manageable, but if tens of thousands of people want to download you've suddenly got a problem. If your video becomes popular, then your bandwidth bill might suddenly become enormous -- or it might not even matter because your server might fail while trying to handle the load.
It would be great if all of those tens of thousands of people who want to view your video could help. If everyone who downloaded it were to pass on a copy to someone else, that would be enough bandwidth to transmit it everywhere. BitTorrent is a protocol for doing exactly this -- with a few nuances, like breaking the file into many small bits and distributing them so no one has to stand in line waiting for someone upstream, and like passing around hashes of the pieces to protect against transmission errors or intentional modification of data. Miro uses BitTorrent to distribute the files, and it automatically "pays back" by helping to upload files that you have downloaded as long as they are available on your drive.
A Thoughtful Approach to Copyright Law
BitTorrent is a wonderful tool, but it gets a bad name because its most common use is to distribute pirated copies of video and audio. For that matter, many video and audio distribution sites have been shut down due to legal issues with copyright law (remember Napster?). Many people (myself included) feel that the current laws in this area ought to be revised, but it is difficult to make a case for this when one is viewed as a "pirate" or lawbreaker.
Miro is owned by a non-profit called the Participatory Culture Foundation. This group's board is staffed by well-known luminaries such as Cory Doctorow ("the guy from BoingBoing") and John Lilly ("the guy who runs Mozilla"). Even more significantly, the PCF has taken the "right" approach to copyright law.
Feeds can come from anywhere (including searches on sites like YouTube which are famously full of unauthorized copyrighted material. And if you get your feed from someone who distributes pirated material, it will work fine with Miro. But the feeds which Miro advertises, and the ones which it lists on their website, are all reviewed by the PCF in an attempt to ensure that they only contain material with an open (Creative Commons) license. Of course, at some point someone will slip in some inappropriate material, but the folks who run things at Miro are doing their best to prevent it.
And this is exactly the right approach to take. There are plenty of people who want to share their work. Encourage them to do so legally. Encourage the Miro viewers to view these fully-legal videos (by featuring them in the Channel Guide). If some Miro users also choose to take in some pirated works, well... that's their own choice.
Recently, Comcast has been interfering with BitTorrent. They get away with this because... well, they get away with it because they are a monopoly, but they feel like it is acceptable because they figure that most people using BitTorrent are pirates. Miro's role as an "upstanding citizen" here is an important one.
It Will Change Television Forever
Television will be changing quite dramatically in the very near future. Already one wave of changes has replaced advertising-supported free-over-the-air broadcast of several channels with pay-to-subscribe to a few hundred channels delivered over cable. [PS: I don't have cable. But everyone else does.] Tivo and it's ilk are currently changing us from shows-scheduled-by-broadcaster to your-choice-of-shows-available-when-YOU-want and breaking the old advertising model at the same time. An even bigger change will come when "anyone" can produce shows, instead of the select few networks acting as gatekeepers.
Imagine a future where shows are distributed by BitTorrent on the net (almost no cost to distribute!). Where many shows are produced on a shoestring by dedicated fans, and those with bigger production budgets are supported by a combination of advertising, product placement, and donations. Where viewers can see what they want whenever they are ready -- even catch up on old shows after they discover a new series. It's a world where Wonderfalls and Firefly would never have been canceled. Where open licensing would allow fans to create follow-on materials that would boost the value of the core shows enormously. And the only technological problem keeping us from this world today is that not every household has a copy of Miro installed.
But you could solve solve that one (for your household anyway) right now.