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Netflix plotting move to HTML5 video - but only if DRM works

'We're a major source of funds for Hollywood'

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Streaming video leader Netflix says it's eager to move away from using Microsoft's moribund Silverlight technology to support its service on desktop PCs, but it will be a while yet before today's HTML5 browsers support the features it needs to make that happen.

In a blog post on Monday, reps for Netflix – which by some estimates now accounts for around a third of all internet traffic in North America – said the company definitely plans to get off the Silverlight boat before it sinks for good in 2021, and that HTML5 video is probably the solution ... but it's not quite there yet.

The problem? As Netflix cloud architect Adrian Cockcroft candidly explained at the seventh annual Linux Collaboration Summit in San Francisco on Monday, "We're trying to get to the point where we don't need a plugin. But we have to have DRM."

Silverlight has long been Netflix's technology of choice for implementing its DRM solution on Windows and OS X. But as director of engineering Anthony Park and director of streaming standards Mark Watson admitted in their Monday blog post, that solution presents a host of problems.

For one thing, customers must download the Silverlight plugin; not even Windows comes with it preinstalled. And increasingly, for many browsers that's simply a no-go. The most popular mobile browsers don't accept plugins, for example, and neither does Internet Explorer 10 running in Windows Store mode.

There is a Netflix app for Windows 8 and Windows RT, just like there is one for Android and iOS. But this approach of maintaining separate, dedicated clients for each platform can be a real drag. It would be much better if support for Netflix streaming were baked right into the HTML5 standards – and if the company has its way, it says, that's just what will happen.

"Over the last year, we've been collaborating with other industry leaders on three W3C initiatives which are positioned to solve this problem of playing premium video content directly in the browser without the need for browser plugins such as Silverlight," Park and Watson wrote.

Those three initiatives are Media Source Extensions, Encrypted Media Extensions, and the Web Cryptography API (aka WebCrypto), three proposed extensions to the current HTML5 spec that should allow Netflix to build a complete client for its service for any web browser that supports them.

So far, however, that means just one browser: the version of Chrome that's baked into Chrome OS, the OS that powers Google's lightweight web-client laptops. And even then, it's sort of a hack. WebCrypto hasn't been fully implemented yet, not even in Chrome OS, so Netflix has had to provide that functionality with a homebrewed PPAPI (Pepper Plugin API) module.

"We will remove this last remaining browser plugin as soon as WebCrypto is available directly in the Chrome browser," Park and Watson wrote. "At that point, we can begin testing our new HTML5 video player on Windows and OS X."

The pair gave no word on when they might expect that to happen, however, and Google could not immediately be reached for comment.

But forget about getting rid of the DRM

If all of this effort seems like a lot of trouble just to implement DRM technology that customers don't really want, get used to it. When asked by a Linux Collaboration Summit attendee what Netflix was doing to help push back against Hollywood's insistence on DRM, the way Amazon and Apple have done for music downloads, Cockcroft was brutally frank.

"Right now what we're basically doing is giving billions of dollars to Hollywood to buy the content, so that they can afford to build more content," he said. "That's basically the business we're in. We're a major source of funds for Hollywood and we're mostly concerned about getting content made and getting it out to our customers."

When pressed as to whether Netflix cared about providing users the features they wanted, however – such as the ability to download movies to their local hard drives – Cockcroft gave an enlightening glimpse into the video titan's strategy.

In a nutshell, it's world domination.

"We just do streaming," he said. "There's a number of ways that Netflix's business model is very, very narrowly focused. We don't do download, and we don't do all these other things. And by keeping the business and the functionality of what we build very, very narrow, it makes it easy for us to do the one thing that we are doing right now, which is to go global."

Building lots of new features – features that would need to be internationalized and localized for each new market the company enters – would only slow Netflix's momentum down, Cockcroft explained.

"So right now the Netflix product is being kept very narrow and simple because we haven't finished taking it completely global. And once we go global, we're everywhere, and we're licensing content for the whole world, rather than just for one country at a time, then we can look at adding more features and that sort of thing," he said. "But we've got to get through this phase so that we can get to that." ®

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