Miro 1.0: For Those Who Want Not Just Free Video, But To Set Video Free - InformationWeek

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11/14/2007
02:54 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Miro 1.0: For Those Who Want Not Just Free Video, But To Set Video Free

Open-source video application Miro released its 1.0 version yesterday for Windows, Mac and Linux, but its creators don't think of it as just another me-too media player.  They want it to be something a little more ... well, revolutionary.

Open-source video application Miro released its 1.0 version yesterday for Windows, Mac and Linux, but its creators don't think of it as just another me-too media player.  They want it to be something a little more ... well, revolutionary.

The Concept

Miro is actually the new name for a project once called "Democracy Player", a combination of video player application, feed aggregator, download manager and a number of other things in one package.  I suspect the most immediately appealing features will be things that allow people to better access things they already know about, like the ability to download and save videos posted to YouTube or Google Video.

But the real purpose of Miro, according to its creators, the Participatory Culture Foundation, is to allow people to obtain video in an open, convenient and DRM-free way.  "Miro is designed to eliminate gatekeepers," says the PCF in one of its mission statements about Miro, currently posted to the front page of the PCF website.  (Recent InformationWeek contributor Cory Doctorow is himself on the board of directors for the PCF.)  It's a portal, so to speak, to the worlds of user-created video content out there that are distributed without copy protection or restrictive licensing.

So is commercial video content as we know it is doomed?  I doubt it, but that hardly seems to be the point.  Services like Joost and NetFlix Watch Now are not going to get elbowed out of the way by Miro; they fulfill entirely different needs.  They may use DRM and require either monthly subscription fees or unskippable ad blocks, but as long as someone is willing to put up with those things for the sake of having access to premium content, they'll survive just fine.  Me, I'll probably continue to run Joost and NetFlix side by side with Miro, although I have to admit the inability to use Joost to aggregate anything but Joost-provided content, and Joost's generally mediocre video quality (the standard-def stuff is not great, and there's no HD content at all) are definitely hard to put out of mind.  (NetFlix also doesn't stream HD, at least not yet.)

The Program

When you fire up Miro, you'll be greeted with a collection of starter video channels -- WIRED Science Video Podcast, courtesy of PBS, and NASA's high-definition Jet Propulsion Laboratory feed (a favorite of mine).  Miro can accept any RSS feed with media extensions as a channel, and creators of a video feed are encouraged to submit it to the Miro Guide so that it'll show up most readily to other Miro users.  The Guide is moderated, but again, nothing says you can't just publish a feed on your own.

Content in each channel is divided into individual clips, anything from an episode of a TV show to a full movie-length feature, which you then flag for download.  By default everything you download is kept for five days and then automatically deleted, but you can retain downloads longer on demand.  Any search can be saved as a channel unto itself as well, which is a handy way to subscribe to anything tagged with specific search words (like, say, "AskANinja").  If you're a creator, the Miro site has instructions on how to publish content using (also open-source) applications like the Broadcast Machine, although Miro itself is not a video publishing tool.

Because Miro uses BitTorrent as one of its key delivery mechanisms, you'll want to make sure the program's set to use whatever ports you normally have set aside for BT (especially if you have a firewall that needs to perform port forwarding).  Also, because of the way BT works, you can't preview video as you're downloading it -- something many people are probably going to find annoying, especially if their main exposure to Internet video has been through services like YouTube.  Note that if a given search entry has a corresponding web page, you can launch the containing page directly and just view it that way, but it's still a little irritating that you can't do this within the program itself.

As far as the open-source side of Miro goes, it's not just an open-source project unto itself but has the roots of several others within it.  BitTorrent is one of the big ones, but Miro also uses the VLC video player (a longtime favorite app of mine) internally.  Plus, a number of folks with roots in the open-source community -- the Mozilla Foundation, for one -- have helped fund the development of Miro.  The code itself's licensed as a GPL project, which opens up possibilities for it to be reworked into any number of other implementations -- for instance, someone could theoretically write a variant of Miro that plugged into Windows Media Player.

The Bottom Line

I'm used to the 1.0 incarnation of anything being a little rough, but I'm still intrigued by what I see. Let's start with the obvious stuff: the content available through Miro is a mixed bag: I loved the NASA JPL channel, for instance, but a lot of the stuff published to YouTube is as hit-or-miss as you can imagine.  Such is the nature of free, non-commercial TV on the web, though.  Also, the application itself is not going to be my first program of choice for playing video in general (that I reserve for VLC, GMplayer or Nero ShowTime, depending on what I'm playing back).

But I am cautiously optimistic about how the casual presence of a program like Miro will be received by curious audiences -- think about having Miro preinstalled or available as an entertainment option on a Linux (or even Windows) PC.  I don't think we'll see the end of the cable card or DVD rent-by-mail anytime soon, but it's nice to see that many more alternatives blossoming.

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