Netflix set to abandon Silverlight but introduce DRM for Web video

The HTML5 standard's battles over video codecs may now spill into copy protection arguments

Netflix, which delivers more video via the Internet than anyone except YouTube, is dropping Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in technology for video delivery, moving instead to HTML5. Here's the catch: The HTML5 standards that Netflix is proposing, with support from other major companies, includes hooks for copy protection.

Earlier this year, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix submitted to the W3C a draft proposal for a way to add digital rights management (DRM) to video played through HTML5. The Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) draft was harshly criticized by many -- most notably Ian Hickson, one of the original authors of the HTML5 spec. He described the attempt to add copy protection hooks as "unethical" and "a plug-in platform in disguise," because EME as proposed describes an API framework where third-party plug-ins could be used to perform the decryption rather than the browser itself.

The proponents of the technology say this is meant to be an optional system, not a mandatory element for video playback. But other objections have been raised. If the decryption process involves plug-ins, this makes the system no more genuinely open than the current methods that deliver playback with content protection via Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. Also, if such plug-ins are tied to a particular commercial service (for example, Hulu or Netflix) rather than a particular delivery method (say, Flash or Silverlight), users might find themselves forced to use a bevy of plug-ins to work with different services.

The plug-in approach also doesn't work in iOS's Safari due to Apple's security model and is severely restricted in Windows 8's Metro portion. Users would need native apps instead, creating more fragmentation.

EME isn't the only item Netflix claims it needs before it can deliver video via HTML5. Two other draft proposals, the Media Source Extensions and the Web Cryptography API -- which have generated far less controversy -- also must be accepted as full standards before they can be a part of the implementation Netflix has in mind for its service.

Netflix isn't waiting, though. It says a version of this technology is being used right now to deliver Netflix playback on Google Chrome OS-based laptops and it is "working with Google to implement support for the HTML5 Premium Video Extensions in the Chrome browser."

Another reason for Netflix getting the ball rolling sooner rather than later is Microsoft's long-term plans for Silverlight. With the Web moving away from proprietary plug-ins in general and toward HTML5 as a common framework and delivery mechanism for rich content, Microsoft has decided to let the sun go down on Silverlight. Microsoft doesn't support Silverlight in its own Windows 8 Metro and Windows RT UIs.

Although the current Silverlight Version 5 will be supported through Oct. 12, 2021, there are no signs of a Version 6. On the other hand, the last few versions of Internet Explorer have added new and expanded HTML5-powered features, including video, though that browser remains far behind Chrome, Safari, and Firefox in HTML5 compatibility.

The controversy over the inclusion of DRM in HTML5, whether directly or via plug-ins, is just the latest issue in the struggle to include video as a part of the HTML5 standard.

Early in the development of HTML5 came controversy over which codecs to specify as part of its video standard. Originally, the draft standard recommended using the Theora video and Vorbis audio codecs in the Ogg container format, but the recommendation was retracted after criticism from major vendors such as Nokia and Apple. Attempts by Mozilla and Google to spur interest in another liberally licensed codec, VP8, also didn't gain much traction.

Criticisms about the use of those codecs included uncertainty about possible patent issues. H.264/AVC, the current major codec for video delivery, is patented but backed by many companies, so any patent risks could be ameliorated through their licenses. Moreover, the current licensing for H.264 allows it to be used freely on the Web as long as no fees are charged for watching video.

Mozilla was one of the more vocal holdouts against the use of H.264 for video, but it has softened its position somewhat lately due to the lack of uptake for Theora or VP8. The growing prevalence of platform-level support (both in hardware and OSes) for H.264 decoding has made it possible for Firefox on Windows to decode H.264 via the native platform libraries provided by Microsoft, rather than bring it into Firefox itself -- letting Mozilla off the hook for supporting an undesired license directly.

Whatever happens in the codec battles, the EME draft isn't mean to work with any particular codec. By the time all major browsers support EME, Netflix and the other major video-delivery services on the Web might well be using HEVC, also known as H.265, the successor to H.264, which supports 4K and even higher resolutions.

This story, "Netflix set to abandon Silverlight but introduce DRM for Web video," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.