Last night I watched the DNC live online and I had a very odd thought: the politics of watching this online was getting in the way of my enjoyment…of a political convention? Well, given the fact that conventions focus more on personalities & life stories than political issues, it shouldn’t be surprising that most of my political thoughts had to do with two technology issues surrounding the online broadcast: Microsoft’s Silverlight technology (being used to stream the video online) and high speed internet policies in the US.

Silverlight & online multimedia

On the web generally, a set of “open standards” has more or less won out: HTML, CSS and Javascript. There are several good competing web browsers out there today, they all support HTML, CSS & Javascript1 and no one company owns these technologies: instead independent groups like the W3C oversee these technologies.

In the space of digital audio & video, however, proprietary technologies still reign. Adobe’s Flash technology now dominates online video (think YouTube for an example of Flash video). Relative to the mess of competing, incompatible video formats of a few years ago (remember the Real Player?), this is probably, on balance, a good thing for internet video. However, Flash exists solely to benefit Adobe, and they are free to decide what platforms to support, what features to add (& not add), and what hoops developers must jump through to develop Flash.

Silverlight is Microsoft’s brand new attempt to defeat Flash. It basically does exactly what Flash does, actually has some very cool features and is, in some ways, more “open” than Flash.2 Last night was my first experience with Silverlight—I installed it just to watch the DNC as we recently got rid of our TV—and I was impressed. Our “television” is a 20-inch iMac and in fullscreen mode, the video looked great. Easily the best streaming live video I’d ever seen…minus a few hiccups. (More on the hiccups in a bit.)

So what’s the problem? Like Flash, Silverlight ultimately exists to serve Microsoft’s interests, and Microsoft clearly plans to use Silverlight to extend Windows into the web. Signing lucrative deals with NBC over the Olympics and now with the political conventions, Microsoft’s plan is clear: get Silverlight on every PC and then make Flash irrelevant. There are open alternatives, though: Ogg Theora for video and, of course, the web standards trio of HTML, CSS & Javascript for building rich web applications. If keeping the web open, competitive & free of control by any one entity is an important political objective in the digital age, then Silverlight is something to watch closely.

Broadband in the US

The video did look reallly good though. Most of the time. Every few minutes the video would degrade form crisp near-HD quality to the blurry, pixelated YouTube-quality video we know and love, and about ten times or so throughout the evening, the video cut out entirely for 10-30 seconds. Now I don’t know if the problem was on my end or theirs, though we do pay for one of the faster DSL plans, so our internet is reliably fast. Either way, my point is that it was just good enough to give us a glimpse of how the internet could work as a fully-functioning alternative to traditional television or cable. The technology is there. It works well. The only thing holding it back is more bandwidth made more widely available. To borrow the great Ted Stevens phrase, we just need bigger tubes. Yet the US now lags behind other countries in internet infrastructure:

Americans invented the Internet, but the Japanese are running away with it.

Broadband service here is eight to 30 times as fast as in the United States — and considerably cheaper. Japan has the world’s fastest Internet connections, delivering more data at a lower cost than anywhere else, recent studies show.

Accelerating broadband speed in this country — as well as in South Korea and much of Europe — is pushing open doors to Internet innovation that are likely to remain closed for years to come in much of the United States.

The speed advantage allows the Japanese to watch broadcast-quality, full-screen television over the Internet, an experience that mocks the grainy, wallet-size images Americans endure.

Why isn’t this happening here? Government policy:

In sharp contrast to the Bush administration over the same time period, regulators here compelled big phone companies to open up wires to upstart Internet providers.

In short order, broadband exploded. At first, it used the same DSL technology that exists in the United States. But because of the better, shorter wire in Japan, DSL service here is much faster. Ten to 20 times as fast, according to Pepper, one of the world’s leading experts on broadband infrastructure.

(And here’s a more in-depth article on this topic from a few years back.)


  1. With varying degrees of success…cough, IE… []
  2. For the geeks: it’s “more open” in a few ways: it delivers plain text XAML files to the browser compared to Flash’s binaries, however Microsoft chose, again, to create their own language for vector graphics rather than adopting the SVG standard. And of course, Silverlight includes Microsoft’s “PlayReady” DRM technology. But back on the “open” side of the ledger though, you can also program for Silverlight in several open source languages—including Python & Ruby—and an open source implementation of Silverlight, Moonlight, is already underway with Microsoft’s approval. []