TapMedia Players (1) The Problem

One of the trickiest problems to solve with computer software is interactions between different products and nowhere is this more difficult than with “media” software. By media software I mean the programs that play video & audio files, CDs & DVDs. For the moment I am ignoring the creation of these files and disks which includes recording sound and video, writing disks, ripping files and conversion. What I am looking at is playing what you have got or can download. Later I will be looking in more detail at the playback for presentations such as we use in Church.

What makes this so complex is that there are at least three competing systems, each with their own proprietary formats and which largely refuse to talk to each other. These are Microsoft Windows Media Player, Apple Quicktime and Real Player. What is worse is that these programs have a reputation of bickering and fighting over who has control of the PC that should be yours. You don’t have a lot of choice about the file formats because others are creating them, so what I have been looking at is how to achieve the maximum capability with the minimum of annoyance.

I will state at the start that I am not an expert in this field, I am trying to make sense of it so if you have any useful insight I would welcome hearing from you. It is possible to get into quite a mess with this and on more than one occasions I have had to un-install everything and start again.

The reason that the problem exists at all is that, if nothing was done to media files, they would be absolutely huge. I am sure you can do the maths but even a small 320 x 240 video at 25 frames per second and 24 bit colour depth generates a huge file in no time (44Mbps). This is what analogue VHS recorders did and why the media was relatively bulky (and poor quality). The situation for audio is similar; though the data rate should be lower, we are less tolerant of errors so the files can still be large. For example a CD samples at 44.1 thousand times a second at 16 bit resolution on each of two channels (1.3Mbps). Analogue audio recording could be good, arguably better than digital. What was done to reduce the quantity of data in both cases was to compress the files eliminating bits that were thought to be unnecessary. A certain amount of lossless compression can be done but most of the methods involve some compromises of quality over space. It is these algorithms which compete and some of them are proprietary.

The software that handles this compression/de-compression is abbreviated to “Codec” and there are hundreds of them. The way that they are supposed to work is that they are first registered with Windows and then any media player that needs to use one sends the raw data to it and it comes back processed. The media player decides which codec it needs by looking at the identifiers on the file. This is where the system breaks down. Some of the media players refuse to even look at competitor’s files, so Windows Media Player will not play Quicktime .mov files however hard you try and only Real Player will look at .ram files. In fact Real Player is one of the better ones and will play most things sent to it if the codecs are available. This is the second problem—the proprietary codecs are only generally available with the corresponding company’s player. If they were charging for this software then there would be a good case for challenging them on competition grounds but they are, at least in basic form, given away free. So, for Real Player to process a Quicktime file, Quicktime itself has to be installed, even if you don’t use it. Finally WIndows Media Player is one of those programs that comes pre-installed with Windows and is difficult, if not impossible to remove.

So, how should this be resolved. Well, ideally, the manufactures ought to be a bit more sensible about this. In the codec, only the “co” part is really proprietary. The “dec” parts have published standard algorithms and should be freely available; after all they want us to view the films coded with their software. The coding part, the creation of files, is a business matter and if they want to hold onto and/or charge for this, it is up to them, but in that case the creators have a choice of which format they want to use. Secondly they should get off their high horses and make the players acknowledge that there are other good things out there and start recognising each other’s files.

In the short term we need to make the best of what we have got and that is what I will look at in the second article in this series.

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