The demand for streaming media players such as Windows Media and Quicktime has long represented the front lines for companies engaged in the codec wars. Since the results of most side-by-side video and media comparisons are subjective and qualitative at best, Microsoft, Apple, Real, Macromedia, and DivX have touted how many times their respective media players have been downloaded to convince content providers that using their codecs will offer the biggest potential streaming media audience. On the surface, this logic makes sense, but the reality is much more complicated than what you might expect.
To begin with, the metrics cited usually give the total number of downloads rather than the number of unique users. Plus, they rarely mention whether the amount reflects new downloads or established users upgrading to the latest version. If the number refers to the last two versions of a media player, then one user can easily equal a half-dozen downloads when you take into account a laptop, home desktop, and work computer.
On top of this, the numbers often only count streaming media downloads from the company’s Web site. Considering the fact that many of these players have myriad distribution channels outside of the company’s own site, most of the market penetration numbers that you read are, in and of themselves, next to useless. For instance, many web sites that have streaming media video available on their sites provide download to the video players they utilize.
But that’s not to say that there’s no value in taking media player market penetration into consideration when choosing a codec; you just need a little perspective. This article takes a look at five major media players—Windows Media Player, QuickTime, RealPlayer, Macromedia Flash Player, and DivX—with an eye towards what these numbers represent and what effect recent news may have on the global outlook for video player penetration.
A prime example of the caveats associated with taking download numbers at face value can be found in the purported 250 million downloads of the QuickTime player. “The only distribution numbers that we track are platform,” says Frank Casanova, Apple’s senior director of product marketing for the interactive media group. “When people come to our site they declare if they want the PC or Mac version.” Casanova cites the fact that 98% of the downloads are the PC version as evidence of QuickTime’s universal adoption, but the fact that Apple doesn’t track individual users renders the 250 million downloads meaningless.
But this doesn’t negate the veracity of the number nearly as much as the fact that 250 million actually only represents a small slice of the total number of Quicktime video players in circulation because it only counts downloads from Apple’s Web site. The other ways in which QuickTime’s video player is distributed include digital cameras, of which there are more than 50 different models from companies like Canon and Olympus; nonlinear editing tools like Final Cut Pro; education and entertainment software titles; enhanced music CDs that offer video in addition to audio; and iTunes. “One of the biggest computer manufacturers in China packages it, as well as AOL,” says Casanova. “Distribution isn’t a problem for us.” In fact, Casanova roughly estimates that the total number of players in the market easily exceeds a billion.
While QuickTime’s architecture formed the basis of MPEG-4’s development, Apple as a company is fairly neutral as to which codec it wants to see win out. “Apple is a hardware company,” explains Casanova. “First and foremost, we’re interested in selling content creation platforms; it doesn’t matter what format the content ends up in.” That said, a recent Frost & Sullivan report indicated that QuickTime is creeping up on market leader Microsoft in the battle for streaming video dominance, commanding 36.8% of the market.
That same report claimed that Real video had lost ground and was firmly entrenched in third, but yet again the veracity of statistics-based metrics have to be called into question as a representative of Real firmly stated that Frost & Sullivan didn’t contact Real when compiling their report. “People purposefully confuse the definition [of penetration stats],” says Kevin Foreman, GM Helix for RealNetworks. He went on to claim more than 400 million unique email addresses of users who have downloaded the RealPlayer. In terms of actual number of downloads, “we are well into the billions,” says Foreman. “But to a broadcaster, that number doesn’t make sense,” especially considering the fact that there are only an estimated 580 million people currently online.
That number will be increasing exponentially in the near future, though, as more and more cell phones are manufactured with video capabilities. Real’s poised to take advantage of this market by being included as the default media player on many of the major cell OSes. But potentially more significant to the increase in user base is Real’s movement into the European market.
Real recently announced that their open-source Helix player will ship with Linux-based OSes in Europe. The Helix player only allows for the playback of Ogg Vorbis and Theora-encoded video (two open-source video codecs), but users will be prompted with the opportunity for a free upgrade to RealPlayer 10 when they first use the Helix player. “There’s no QuickTime or Windows Media player for Linux,” says Foreman. “If you’re a Linux or a Solaris customer, your only real choice is Real.” While the Linux marketplace still accounts for only 2.7% of the total desktop pie, “a lot of analysts forecast that there will be more Linux desktops than Mac this year,” says Foreman. Plus, Linux-based OSes have gained a lot of momentum in cost-conscious European markets.
Windows Media Video
Speaking of media players in Europe, Microsoft’s monopolistic ways caught up with them earlier this year as the European Commission won an antitrust case against them. As a result of this litigation, Microsoft was ordered to stop packaging its Windows Media Player (WMP) with the Windows XP OS and pay a record $604 million fine. In light of Real’s attempt to increase its presence in the European market, “a lot of analysts would say that it is a big win for us,” says Real’s Foreman. “But our strategy is to not count on a verdict either way.” Microsoft has avoided having to succumb to this decision for the near future, as the Commission granted a stay on the penalties as Microsoft appeals the decision. A ruling on that appeal should come before the end of the year.
In the meantime, WMP’s current integration with Windows OSes guarantees its presence on the vast majority of PCs. A Mac version of the WMP 9 is available, but the future of WMP on the Mac is somewhat up in the air. With the beta release of WMP 10 , Microsoft has made clear that it wants to establish itself as a major player in the future distribution of digital audio and video content. Through their concept of a “digital media mall,” Microsoft has positioned WMP 11 to become the glue that will facilitate the transfer of digital content from sale to delivery to consumption. What makes this significant to the future of WMP on Macs is that most of the major online digital multimedia content purveyors only work with Windows-based systems. Whether or not Microsoft will deem creating a Mac version of WMP 10 worthwhile has yet to be seen; their primary focus is on increasing the number of CE devices that use WMP as their default media player (especially Microsoft’s own MediaCenters).
Flash and DivX
Though purists will point out that Macromedia’s Flash Player isn’t really a player—technically, it’s a plug-in—its near-ubiquity can’t be ignored. “93.5% of desktops with an Internet connection have Flash Player 6, the first version that serves video,” says Chris Hock, director of product marketing at Macromedia. This percentage refers to all OSes, but “the specific number for Flash Player 6 is a U.S. figure,” says Hock, based on a representative sample. “It’s a pretty similar number for Canada, Europe, and Asia.” For all versions of the Flash Video Player, the penetration rate increases to 98%. Besides being a plug-in rather than a player, the Flash Player differs from the others in this article in that it is completely customizable. This mutability is a plus for customers who really want to control the look and feel of their video, but it’s a negative for others, as creating a custom player does require someone with Flash expertise. Flash MX 2004 solves the problem of player development for non-technical types by including a set of prebuilt player templates.
Then there’s DivXNetworks, which has pursued the consumer electronics market as vigorously as it has the desktop base by licensing its player to set-top DVD player manufacturers like KiSS, Philips, and JVC, as well as to software and hardware manufacturers like Roxio, Plextor, and ArcSoft. Such a diverse approach to the market, and one that goes far beyond streaming, makes it hard to get a handle on the DivX player’s penetration, but DivX chief marketing officer and managing director Kevin Hell says there have been 120 million downloads of the player from the company’s Web site alone. Additionally, DivX recently announced its partnership with Italian telecommunications company Wind to deliver on-demand DivX content to more than 200,000 broadband subscribers in Europe, Hell says.
The Chinese Video Connection
The area of the world with the most potential for growth can be found in its most populous country. “China is a really hot marketplace,” says Real’s Foreman, “because most of the users aren’t just upgrading, they’re new player downloads.” Combine China’s burgeoning middle class and their desire to get onto the Internet with a government that can move unilaterally to adopt and encourage the adoption of whatever OS it chooses, and you can see how China represents the most significant market left for media players to penetrate.
In the end, does it really matter when or if any specific media player (or codec) will become the dominant standard? For those wanting to deliver video and audio content, it doesn’t seem so, especially since the big three (Microsoft, Apple, and Real) have made efforts to incorporate more and more codecs for video playback. For consumers, as long as they can enjoy the content they want, at a high enough quality, when and where they want it, they won’t care. This is the ultimate goal, regardless of what codec you use to deliver your content.0