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Interview with Nicholas Reville About Miro and Open Media, by Sean Daly
Thursday, February 07 2008 @ 09:00 PM EST

Interview with Nicholas Reville About Miro and Open Media,
by Sean Daly [Ogg]

Q: This is Sean Daly reporting for Groklaw. I'm on the wire with Nicholas Reville of the Participatory Culture Foundation. Did I get that right?

Nicholas Reville: Yes, absolutely.

Q: OK. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Nicholas Reville: My pleasure.

Q: All right. I wanted to talk to you today about Miro. Perhaps you could briefly describe Miro? How is it different from other players? Well, actually, it's more than a player; maybe you can explain that a little bit. And has that difference contributed to its success?

Nicholas Reville: Sure. Miro is software that you download into your computer that turns it into something like a TV for the Internet. It's free; it's open source; it's made by a nonprofit which is the organization that I work for. And the idea behind Miro is to give you a comprehensive TV-like experience on your computer. And we're trying to do that not just because we want to have a great experience for our users, which we do, but also because we've built the software in a very open, very democratic, very accessible way. The goal is to open up video online, to not have the same kind of gatekeepers and restrictions that creators face in traditional broadcasting, to not have those as television moves online.


[01:18]

Q: Now, when you say "gatekeepers", would you mean like Joost, or Hulu? Commercial startups?

Nicholas Reville: So a lot of companies are looking at [Internet] video as the next big thing, the next big way to make a lot of money online. And one approach that a lot of companies are taking is to try to funnel creators and viewers through their system, to force them to do a deal in order to reach that audience. And we think this really goes against the openness of the Internet and really restricts the kinds of speech that are possible and the kinds of people that are able to get their message through to that audience.

So if you have software like Joost, you have to do a deal with them if you want to reach those users. If Comcast is trying to set up an exclusive, you know, on-demand service on your cable box, you have to do a deal with them in order to get your content to that audience. Only a very, very, very small number of people and companies are going to be able to do that.

The idea with Miro is to take a very open, very "Internet-y" approach, where anybody can participate, anybody can send a channel of high-definition video to any number of users around the world for extremely low or no cost at all.


[02:37]

Q: Now, you recently came out with your version 1 which I understand was a big event for you. [NDLR: Version 1.1 has just been released.]

Nicholas Reville: That's right.

Q: Can you tell me how many downloads you've had of the Miro player up to now?

Nicholas Reville: Sure. Last year we had over two million downloads --

Q: Two million!

Nicholas Reville: -- in 2007, and we've been growing pretty steadily with each new release. We're getting more users as the product gets better and better. And we're expecting to have, you know, four or five or more million more downloads this year.


[03:09]

Q: Now, it is a multi-platform environment. Would you be able to tell us what the breakdown is between Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux?

Nicholas Reville: I don't have exact numbers; it's actually a little bit harder to calculate than it sounds, but it's something like 70% Windows, 20% Mac, and maybe 10% Linux. I think we tend to have more Mac and Linux users than the population at large, because we're attracting early adopters, people that are more tech-savvy, that are following kind of the latest trends.

But we're also trying to build something that really appeals to a mass audience, that's easy for people to use, that's easy to recommend to their friends, and so we're hopeful that we're able to both attract the early adopters and reach a mass audience.


[04:02]

Q: Now let's discuss Mozilla for a moment. As I understand it, the Mozilla Foundation has been an important sponsor of Miro, although not the only one. I saw that there is close cooperation with Firefox. Does this approach privilege Firefox over other browsers?

Nicholas Reville: Well, we use some Mozilla technology in Miro, especially on the Windows platform. So there's a lot of open source software that they've made that we're able to use to make the software work so we don't have to rewrite parts of the program to have, for instance, web-browser style functionality. We think Mozilla Firefox is a wonderful product. We're building software for it, extensions to it, features that will connect with Miro. So we have a very close relationship.

But that relationship really comes from the mission and the values and the fact that Firefox is open source, and we want to encourage people to download open source and Firefox is a wonderful tool.

And what we're really hoping is that open source, various open source projects can find ways of supporting each other, can connect users to other tools and projects that are going to be useful for them and can really raise each other up together. And so our collaboration with Mozilla is certainly doing that for us, and maybe someday we'll be able to do that for another project.


[05:33]

Q: Well, that of course is possible in an open standards, standards-based environment, you know, the Lego blocks that can fit together. But let's talk for a moment about codecs. As I understand, Miro which -- correct me if I'm wrong -- it has the VLC engine, it can work with lots of different codecs.

Nicholas Reville: On Windows it ships with VLC, that's right.

Q: And are there any codecs that are not compatible with Miro?

Nicholas Reville: We don't provide support for Real Player.

Q: Well, that's not surprising, it's a proprietary format. There's -- you do provide some support for Windows Media video, don't you?

Nicholas Reville: That's right, VLC is able to play some Windows Media and there are some extensions that you can get -- Microsoft offers an extension on the Mac that you can install that will enable Miro to play Windows Media on the Mac.


[06:38]

Q: Now, are those formats, the proprietary or we could call them patent-encumbered formats, is that a problem?

Nicholas Reville: As far as we're concerned, we don't think it's going to be a problem for us.


[06:54]

Q: For you, it's very important to provide ease of use to the final user.

Nicholas Reville: Absolutely. And, you know, we kind of think that worrying about what video is in what format and what player works with which type of video is really a product of companies trying to lock users into their specific proprietary formats, force people to use their tools.

And we're hoping to get past the format wars and look at how we can improve the experience for people in terms of accessing channels of video, watching, organizing videos that they have on their computer and really creating a unified experience as much as possible.


[07:36]

Q: All right. Let's talk for a moment about your latest news. You've just announced some new partnerships for branded players. What can you tell us about these projects? Is this a direction you'd like to continue in?

Nicholas Reville: Absolutely, and this is really just the beginning, and I hope the tip of the iceberg, for the kind of partnerships you're going to be seeing us do. The idea of cobranding is that a company or an organization that wants to have a desktop experience for people watching their video, that creates a lot of video, that has a lot of channels of video, an organization like that can get a custom version of Miro that comes with their branding, with their channels pre-subscribed, and really offer the complete immersive desktop experience, HD-quality video, to all their viewers. And instead of having to go out and build their own technology to do this, they're able to take what we've already done, get a custom version, and in the process, they're promoting open software to their users, which advances our mission. They're also improving their outreach, increasing their viewer base, offering a new way for their viewers to get their content, and there may be some partnerships down the road where we're able to bring revenue back into our organization through advertising that they'll run in the player in terms of commercial companies.


[09:06]

Q: Now, let's talk about advertising for a moment. The prevailing wisdom is that advertising is the key to a successful Internet video model. Is it that simple? Do you agree, or is it more complicated than that?

Nicholas Reville: I think it's definitely more complicated. There's always going to be tons of free video and tons of ad-supported video. There's also going to be lots of video that isn't ad-supported, that's there for a mission, that's funded in other ways, or done on an amateur basis.

And I think that people tend to underestimate how powerful that can be and how much content people create simply because they want to share something with the world. They don't feel comfortable with advertising; they don't want to clutter their videos that way. So I think that's going to be a big part of it, ad support is going to be a big part.

But I do think that there is a place for pay-for-download video, and that's something that we would like to do with Miro and it's just a question of when we'll be able to get to the point of building an interface that we think gives people a really smooth way to purchase and download videos.


[10:12]

Q: Now, what about DRM? I mean, traditional video player or interface or environment projects usually propose a technical solution which is meant to reassure rightsholders. Of course, it seems that DRM, whether it's actually effective or not, is quite an open question. Now, is Miro compatible with DRM schemes? Why or why not?

Nicholas Reville: It's not, and we don't support DRM. We think it's a terrible technology for consumers. We think it's terrible for the public. It restricts people's free speech and copyright rights in a whole number of ways. And what's really going to turn the tide -- you know, unfortunately, because I would like it if this was happening for more value-based reasons because people are worried about the impact on free speech -- but what's really turning the tide is that major media companies, like the major record labels, are realizing that when they put DRM on the media that they're trying to sell, they sell less of it.

And all four of the major record labels now are offering DRM-free music, and it's something that I think the television, movie and other video companies are slower to realize, but I think that they will eventually realize that they're limiting their own sales, and they're not preventing any kind of unauthorized distribution by putting DRM onto their media.


[11:54]

Q: Now, we saw quite recently at MIDEM, the MIDEM exposition in Cannes in southern France, that the association of record companies [IFPI] came out with a joint statement and they said, well, basically, "The time has come for us to go after the source of unauthorized copying and copyright infringement, and that's the ISPs [Internet Service Providers] who turn a blind eye to peer-to-peer sharing and so forth, and so we're not going to go after individuals, but we're going to go after the infrastructure that allows that to happen." And with video, I believe there's already been some documented instances of ISPs that wanted to filter P2P traffic or even filter video traffic. What is your view about that?

Nicholas Reville: We think that net neutrality is vital to the health of the Internet and our hope is that, in the United States and globally, that that will become part of the law for ISPs, and there's candidates like Barack Obama that have come out really clearly supporting that neutrality. As soon as you get into things like filtering, restricting what type of technologies people can use to share information, you're going to start locking out speech, and you're going to start shutting down important ways that people are talking to each other.

Miro, for instance, supports BitTorrent, which is known I think among most people as an unauthorized file sharing platform. But the way Miro uses it is people connect to channels in the Miro guide that are video offered by the publisher in BitTorrent format because it lets them deliver very high [quality] video at very, very low cost. And so you have channels like Democracy Now, for instance, that uses BitTorrent to distribute multi hundreds of megabyte video files every day, and instead of incurring massive bandwidth costs, they're able to use BitTorrent to keep that price way down. Once you start restricting BitTorrent at the ISP level, that means that organizations like Democracy Now are no longer able to get that message out. It's just that simple. And so, if you're ... it's not the right way to deal with the problem.


[14:41]

Q: In discussing that, I'm thinking about the context that the BBC found iteself in, because they, in fact they took a lot of criticism for developing a Windows-only download player client, but the architecture was a closed P2P implementation, Verisign Kontiki --

Nicholas Reville: Yes.

Q: -- which in fact was so closed that the final user did not even have control over how much of his own bandwidth was being used --

Nicholas Reville: Yes.

Q: -- for the sharing. Now, the BBC have made efforts recently to be more compatible with other platforms, although it seems that download players for Mac and GNU/Linux are still far off apparently. If you were to advise the BBC concerning a multi-platform download player, what would you tell them?

Nicholas Reville: I think that a DRM-based player and a Windows-only player is going to, you know, cut their audience dramatically. So I don't think that from a business standpoint that makes any sense.

I would also say that from a public broadcasting perspective, from the mission of serving the public and getting quality, noncommercial content out to as many people as possible, it's an absolute disaster. And I think public broadcasters, certainly in this country and I would expect in the UK and globally, have a mission to serve the public, and that that mission is totally incompatible with a player that only works on one platform, that has DRM, and that restricts the way people can interact with that media.


[16:25]

Q: As it turned out, when the BBC recently, around Christmastime, released a Flash-based streaming client that was multi-platform, it was preferred by viewers in the UK 8 to 1 over the download version. Are you planning on offering streaming within Miro in the future?

Nicholas Reville: We are planning to offer some streaming options within Miro, and I think that's important to a lot of users, and it also -- it gives people an on-demand experience for individual pieces of content. I also think that we're in a very early stage with Internet video where people are used to watching -- having kind of one-time video experiences, where they get a link to a funny video, they go to YouTube, and there's a collection of kind of very disparate types of things.

As online video moves to longer format, half-hour shows, shows that are happening every day, shows that are happening every week, people are going to be more interested in a Tivo-like subscription model where they can pick the shows they want, have them delivered to them every day, be ready to watch in high definition. That's really kind of the ultimate experience for content that you know you're going to want on a regular basis which, you know, tends to be higher-quality, more consistent types of things.

So as online video moves in that direction, we think more people will be moving towards download options where they can get high-definition that they can't get on the web, and they can kind of have a more consistent, more fluid experience.



[18:12]

Q: All right, one more question: how can the community help?

Nicholas Reville: There are lots and lots of ways that people can help Miro, and you know, we -- Miro in a lot of ways is built by our organization, but there's many more people that work on Miro outside of our staff than there are on our staff. It's translated now into over 40 languages, we have people around the world that are testing new releases before they come out, that are writing and submitting code to the project, there are people that are moderating the channel guide every day. The best way to get involved is to go to getmiro.com and click on "join," and you can find out all the ways you can volunteer, get involved and really, for whatever you're interested in, there's a way that you can help promote Miro, help spread open source and open media. And we always love to get new people involved.


[19:15]

Q: All right, Mr. Reville, thank you so much for joining us on the line today.

Nicholas Reville: My pleasure, thank you.

Q: OK, thank you.


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