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Plex flexes media server pecs

Let me be your one true content aggregator

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Watching some of the world’s largest companies - Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix, etc - duke it out in a digital media distribution Battle Royale is fun. It forms a not insignificant portion of my weekly entertainment. But every so often, it is worth taking the time to look at up-and-coming companies.

Plex is one such up-and-comer, and it has an entirely different approach from the heavyweights. Instead of trying to control as much of the stack as possible - locking everyone in - Plex wants to become your one true content aggregator.

With ambitions stretching from local network media master to mobile everything, Plex is intent on becoming an embedded content delivery behemoth, and plans for more yet to come. Whether you are trying to access your personal media library, or stream media from your Netflix account, Plex wants to power the device you use.

And they’re good at it, too. It has players for iOS, Mac, and Android. It has media servers for Mac, Windows and Linux. (Including several Linux NASes.) The company is considering other platforms while at the same time it is building out HTML5 clients and extending the capabilities of the software already in play.

How does Plex work?

The server reads all media – local or remote – available to it, indexes it and makes it available to connected clients. The magic occurs in the real-time transcoding and/or remuxing. Any client device connecting to the media server can choose to receive the video stream in a format appropriate to the device.

Are you running an Android tablet with a Tegra 2 that simply doesn’t handle H.264 high profile? No problem; the Plex server will transcode the file in realtime to something your tablet can play. Want to stream your brand new 1080p video to your iPhone over 3G? Sure; Plex will reduce the bitrate to something appropriate and provide the stream.

This functionality really starts to rock when you can pause a movie on your TV, and resume it on your phone as you head out the door. When you get to work you can pause the video on your phone and resume it on your work computer. All your media, from personal library to long tail media to any service to which you subscribe, on any device at any time.

This is cloud computing made relevant to the consumer. My home Sandy bridge system cheerily transcodes two 1080p streams for two remote mobile devices while it is powering personal virtual machines for three people and playing a 720 video on the home projector.

The software is a steal. My home server’s hardware cost me $750, while the Plex client software cost me a mere $4.99 per person, and the media server software was free.

Plex has an official app store through which you can download various officially supported plug-ins. If Plex doesn’t talk to a given service natively, there is a very good chance that Plex’s remarkable community has created a plug-in for it.

The community is quite active; there’s even an unofficial Plex app store, in which you can find some very high-quality third-party plug-ins. One unofficial plug-in actually live-streams media from Usenet and has to be seen to be believed.

Great potential

Plex’s technology has enterprise implications. The developers at Plex have built a very extensible framework that can be taken in just about any direction they choose. Rights management is apparently not too far off the beaten path, and suddenly Plex becomes a viable vehicle for everything from corporate training videos to changing the art on the photo frame in the lobby.

The potential here is to run a theatre off this software, or manage and track which songs are played at the local Wal-mart. (This is an important consideration when you bear public performance payments in mind.) You could power a fleet of advertising billboards, the jumbotron in a stadium or – as has already happened – integrate it directly into television.

Deploy this as a pre-canned VM, slap some enterprise management on it, get it talking to mobile device management software and you have a the best corporate media service yet designed.

All this potential, and Plex wasn’t even aiming at the enterprise space. There is more – much more – on the drawing board that I cannot yet reveal. Suffice it to say the company is not content to stay "just another media center".

Golden opportunity

Today, Plex is a cheap and efficient way to play all your personal media on almost any device you own. But this very flexibility means the potential exists that tomorrow it will be embedded inside everything we use.

The titans of tech are failing at providing a content delivery user experience people actually enjoy. For this reason alone, they should all start to pay very close attention. Plex has the potential to become the Steam of media delivery, and the ambition to pull it off. Someone needs to buy these guys now, while they are still a small little hobby company noodling around making a cute toy. PleXbox? Yes please. ®

Trevor Pott is a sysadmin based in Edmonton, Canada.

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