The smell of boiling frog

I just got this email today:

Which tells me, from a sample of one (after another, after another) that Zoom is to video conferencing in 2020 what Microsoft Windows was to personal computing in 1999. Back then one business after another said they would only work with Windows and what was left of DOS: Microsoft’s two operating systems for PCs.

What saved the personal computing world from being absorbed into Microsoft was the Internet—and the Web, running on the Internet. The Internet, based on a profoundly generative protocol, supported all kinds of hardware and software at an infinitude of end points. And the Web, based on an equally generative protocol, manifested on browsers that ran on Mac and Linux computers, as well as Windows ones.

But video conferencing is different. Yes, all the popular video conferencing systems run in apps that work on multiple operating systems, and on the two main mobile device OSes as well. And yes, they are substitutable. You don’t have to use Zoom (unless, in cases like mine, where talking to my doctors requires it). There’s still Skype, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and the rest.

But all of them have a critical dependency through their codecs. Those are the ways they code and decode audio and video. While there are some open source codecs, all the systems I just named use proprietary (patent-based) codecs. The big winner among those is H.264, aka AVC-1, which Wikipedia says “is by far the most commonly used format for the recording, compression, and distribution of video content, used by 91% of video industry developers as of September 2019.” Also,

H.264 is perhaps best known as being the most commonly used video encoding format on Blu-ray Discs. It is also widely used by streaming Internet sources, such as videos from NetflixHuluPrime VideoVimeoYouTube, and the iTunes Store, Web software such as the Adobe Flash Player and Microsoft Silverlight, and also various HDTV broadcasts over terrestrial (ATSCISDB-TDVB-T or DVB-T2), cable (DVB-C), and satellite (DVB-S and DVB-S2) systems.

H.264 is protected by patents owned by various parties. A license covering most (but not all) patents essential to H.264 is administered by a patent pool administered by MPEG LA.[9]

The commercial use of patented H.264 technologies requires the payment of royalties to MPEG LA and other patent owners. MPEG LA has allowed the free use of H.264 technologies for streaming Internet video that is free to end users, and Cisco Systems pays royalties to MPEG LA on behalf of the users of binaries for its open source H.264 encoder.

This is generative, clearly, but not as generative as the Internet and the Web, which are both end-to-end by design. .

More importantly, AVC-1 in effect slides the Internet and the Web into the orbit of companies that have taken over what used to be telephony and television, which are now mooshed together. In the Columbia Doctors example, Zoom the new PBX. The new classroom is every teacher and kid on her or his own rectangle, “zooming” with each other through the new telephony. The new TV is Netflix, Disney, Comcast, Spectrum, Apple, Amazon and many others, all competing for wedges our Internet access and entertainment budgets.

In this new ecosystem, you are less the producer than you were, or would have been, in the early days of the Net and the Web. You are the end user, the consumer, the audience, the customer. Not the producer, the performer. Sure, you can audition for those roles, and play them on YouTube and TikTok, but those are somebody else’s walled gardens. You operate within them at their grace. You are not truly free.

And maybe none of us ever were, in those early days of the Net and the Web. But it sure seemed that way. And it does seem that we have lost something.

Or maybe just that we are slowly losing it, in the manner of boiling frogs.

Do we have to? I mean, it’s still early.

The digital world is how old? Decades, at most.

And how long will it last? At the very least, more than that. Centuries or millennia, probably.

So there’s hope.

[Later…] For some of that, dig OBS—Open Broadcaster Software’s OBS StudioFree and open source software for video recording and live streaming. HT: Joel Grossman (@jgro).

Also, though unrelated, why is Columbia Doctors’ Telehealth leaking patient data to advertisers? See here.