Clarence Eldefors blog Mostly about the web and technology


Why Swedish web TV isn’t as big as it could and should be

Swedish TV channels has well over a million weekly users watching full episodes on their web TV players. A big majority of it is the ad free SVT (state television) that is funded by tax payers. The rest is scattered amongst the 3 big commercial actors (TV4, Prosieben with kanal 5/9 and MTG with TV3/6).

With a somewhat unstable connection it is very easy to see some very easily fixed ways that they drive away their viewers.

Doubling the ads
All of the ad supported channels effectively throws ads at you. Firstly when you start the clip and later when you pass the ad spots in the video clip. However, they do not handle it any differently should you want to fast forward into minute 20 where you stopped watching the TV, or where you´re stream disconnected last try. This means you first have to wait for the introductory ad for a good bit, take a second to fast forward and then have to wait for a minute more for the in video ads that you fast forwarded past.

This nuisance is sure to scare away a lot people with disconnecting connections or those seeing short parts of the videos. It is incredibly easily fixed by putting the second ad spot after 10 minutes of watching the video instead of 10 minutes into the clip. It takes a technology change at a level where the channel itself has no direct control, though.

Unreliable fast forwarding
If you decide to do real streaming instead of pseudo-streaming, then at least make sure that the one feature the user will notice actually works.

Supporting slow connections
Be it an unreliable 3G connection or a foreign connection - a lot of people are not using stable 2+mbps connections and still want to watch the videos. There are two easy ways to support them - either you make it a pseudo-stream where you can preload the entire movie (see Youtube) or you also have available a lower bitrate video that is actually getting loaded instead of leading users into buffering land. None of the Swedish web TV stations does this anywhere close to good.

Ad bitrate
If your users can view the video - they should also be able to view the ads without buffering. Ad bitrate has to be the same, or lower, than the normal video playback to stop this.

Ubiquitous error reports
A lot of web TV players wants to make the users known when there is an error so they will know it is not the best you can get. However many of the players have so much false positives that it is soon enough getting normal to now and then get a semi-transparent layer on your movie saying there is an error with the video playback. However the only problem with the video is the error message covering it!

All of these problems together can create many very annoying experiences especially to new web TV users or new Internet users that are easily scared away. The problem is however that the competence in the areas is most often nowhere to be found in the broadcasting companies. Instead they have outsourced every part of the video processing and delivery - sometimes to several different parties. The route to only fix one of the problems may be very long this way and may even mean having to chose a different provider.


Why I still don’t want to like Apple products

Apple really continues to show they want to lock in and control even their potential users. Constantly I see new reasons why Apple are working against open standards, freedom in development and freedom of choice. Some recent examples:

HTML 5 Showcase

Stupid! browser lock-in. Not even the index page that does not showcase any HTML5 at all is accessible in any other browser than Safari. A warning, maybe even as a modal dialog, about browsers and their support could be convenient - but to first block all browsers and then talk about the open web standards that are the future of the web gets, in lack of better wordings, silly. Now where Apple in general with Safari and their website works against open standards and freedom one must admit that their open source decision on the webkit rendering engine is a step in the other direction. But to me everything points to this being a strategic decision to have the a good, stable and fast development of the rendering engine that is just more and more important in their other proprietary systems.

WWDC for (almost) everyone

In 2010 you do not need to require registration as well as require usage of a proprietary download manager (iTunes) to be able to distribute video content. I was going to look at some video presentations of the conference but when realizing I had to download apple software where I need to be very careful to unclick 5 items to not get extra shortcuts, update managers or codecs I do not want - I turned around. Obviously this becomes even more bizarre as they showcase the <video> element in the HTML 5 demos.

Good examples in how you make conference content available rather than promote lock-in:
Google I/O 2010

The flash opinion

Whereas I want open standards to as high degree as possible there is one thing that I feel is more important and that is CHOICE. The choice of the developer and the choice of the user. There is one thing you should do to control this choice and that is give information. What Apple decides to do with Flash is choosing themselves for both the user and the developer.

With the last version of the Android mobile operating system it is for instance possible to deploy Adobe Air applications on the android cellphones. This gives a lot of more ready applications, future potential developers and saves huge amount of time in converting flash applications to the native languages of the platforms. Apple argues that it is Adobes intention not to help developers with creating the best application for iPad/iPod/iPhone but to create the best cross-platform application. They have reason to dislike this as they have gotten such a good amount of dedicated iPhone developers - but I hope times change so that users and developers gets to do the choice. A good rating system lets users decide what apps are good - no matter of the code or framework it was written with. An open system lets others be part of the innovation - both with open and proprietary technologies. Let developers know the pros and cons of different development methods and work towards giving them as much choice as possible. Let users get the information about possible problems with some frameworks, size of downloads and what not - then let them chose and rate depending on their own experience. Users are the best user guides.

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A first glance at hiphop

Facebook recently released their PHP on steroids named HipHop as open source. I listened to their presentation a while before at the FOSDEM conference in Brussels and was as many others impressed - but not as entusiastic as many others seem now.

Some say it's nothing new because there has been a small amount of PHP compilers before or because there are op-code caches already. What HipHop does however is not only to compile the code base to C++ but also process the code in several stages - to use as specific data type possible for instance. Facebook engineers are saying that they see 30-50% performance improvement over PHP that is already boosted by APC. Indeed that is a huge deal given the amount of application servers they use.

On the other side a lot of attention it has been gotten is almost the same as that of APC. It´s seen as a general purpose performance booster. But as with APC results for most people will be disappointing for the reason that most of the application time is not spent in the PHP code with most websites.

Facebook is indeed special compared to most websites. For instance they generally do no joins of data at the database level. That results in alot more data in the application as well as more basic application logic.

The reason they often chose to totally exclude joins are several. Amongst others it´s performance draining for the database servers which are generally harder to scale. It´s also very hard to do when you need to query a whole lot of servers (that can also be sharded by different factors) for each and every type of data you want to join.

HipHop is made for the giants by a giant. The huge sites with a lot of traffic that have big amounts of data to do queries against. Smaller sites will have much less benefit from the performance boost of it as most of their time is spent in databases, caches, reading from disk etc. The results will also vary greatly depending on how much of the code base of the website is mundane (basic constructs like loops, processing with non-dynamic variables etc). Basically everything that can be rewritten with static functions and variables are the most welcome targets to the HipHop optimizations.

Even with some 10 commodity application servers I would say that Hip Hop should give little enough performance boost to justify the time that needs to be spent to learn, test and maintain the framework. For Facebook though, I can certainly see how it's very welcome even with several man-years of development costs as they have thousands (?) of application servers and have good reasons not to drop PHP in most heavy parts of it.

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