Video is, unquestionably, the fastest-growing content format, making it critical for content providers to create an online video platform to satisfy this demand. Of course, an essential choice in building such a platform is deciding which video player to use, and in the last three years of servicing national and international content distributors, we’ve found that one of the most commonly asked questions is how to choose a video player.
Although there is a wide range of video players to choose from, there are only a few main players in the market, with high fragmentation among the rest of the smaller providers. Video’s growth in popularity means that the quality of your video platform can make or break your customer experience, making this decision all the more important.
In this article, we’ll walk through some of the main similarities and differences between a range of video players, including functional and non-functional elements, and contrasting between open-source and commercial players. Most importantly, this article will help you understand the ease of implementation, maintenance, and options to implement your own and third-party add-ons. Due to the technical similarities of the players, these criteria will be most important as you make this decision.
The Core Functionalities
First, we’ll explore the main technical functionalities. It will allow us to examine the different ways in which video players are similar in the functional layer.
The vast majority audio-visual content distribution over the internet, whether live or on-demand, uses HTTP-based protocols, which enable ease of scaling delivery infrastructures, do not require the installation of add-ons by end users, and maintain a level of transverse compatibility.
Most commonly used are HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) and DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP). These protocols are not only widespread in OTT and streaming services, but across the rest of the internet as well. These technologies allow robust video delivery by providing the best possible user experience by adapting to unfavourable environments.
One of the main features it allows video with adaptive bitrates. Video is distributed in multiple encoded renders with different bitrates, and this feature allows the video player to adapt and choose the render that provides for the best user experience at any time, depending on the connection and device.
This particular feature has become very common over the past year, and virtually all modern video players can playback using these formats. As such, while useful, it’s widespread enough that it should not be a deciding factor.
There are multiple ways to monetize a video platform, but by far the most popular method is through advertising.
Advertising via digital media continues to grow year after year. In 2018 in the United States, investment in advertising increased by 21.8% compared to 2017, officially passing the $100B mark.
Of this total, 15% went to video advertising. Video’s growth as a content distribution method continues to provide an excellent opportunity for advertising, but this also means that video players must prioritize being compatible with advertising video formats.
Across the industry, this functionality is highly developed. The primary players are compatible with the conventional methods and standards for displaying video ads, such as the Video Ad Serving Template (VAST). Should a player lack this functionality, an extension can be used. They are usually widely available for each of the leading players.
Video advertisements can be shown in many different ways. One option is to include it to the video stream playlist or manifest during the packaging, a method called Server-Side Ad Insertion (SSAI). Still, one of the most popular ways is to display it natively in the video player.
Although showing ads may seem complicated at first, all major video players have different ways to integrate and playback. It is an important characteristic to take into account. Nevertheless, due to its broad compatibility, it cannot set one player apart from another as it is present in all the major ones.
Data and analytics
Each process in the video workflow requires Key Performance Indicators (KPI), and video players are no exception. These tools allow for analysing performance and customer experience. Data gathered at the video player level can be classified into two categories: data about users and data about the quality of video playback.
In the first category, we can find user-related data such as geography, device usage, and browser choice. This data allows us to identify and profile the audience better, resulting in highly refined spectator segmentation.
Data collected in the second category is related to the viewing experience. including rebuffering ratios, loading time, and the level of video quality. This information allows us to understand performance not only from video players but from all other components, such as the content distribution network (CDN). Monitoring this data enables better decisions to optimize the different processes.
Monitoring and collection services usually require the incorporation of an extension from a third party. These addons are compatible with most of the different video players. Nevertheless, as this is a critical functionality, the analytic capabilities should play a fundamental role in your video player choice.
Preventing unauthorized content views is a priority for many platforms. There are many methods to do so. At player level one of the most effective is digital rights manager (DRM).
The DRM encrypts the video at the time it is encoded, making the content unreadable without authorization. To view the content is necessary to use the encryption keys held by the video player. Implementing this technology requires a player that is compatible and capable of managing the many DRM encryption systems that exist.
It is a more complex functionality, and because there are different DRM systems for different operating systems (often lacking compatibility). This makes it more challenging to manage than other features.
Despite the diverse range of approaches to protect content, each player has a similar number of ways to handle them, making this a variable worthy of consideration in choosing a player.
Personalizing the video player
While the technical functionalities are vital, we also need to pay attention to the interface itself, through which the end-user interacts with the video player. It is the place where content providers have the chance to differentiate their platform, aligning the environment with the brand, and creating a better viewing experience.
Using a custom graphic interface, rather than the video player’s default one, is a core point of differentiation for video platforms. A well-designed interface can significantly improve the experience if it allows the user to navigate and control the player with greater ease, including customs arrangements of video player elements. Additionally, a custom interface allows for brand alignment, creating a more consistent experience.
Enhancing and customizing the UI will not only help differentiate your service from the rest but can also improve the user experience. Most players have the tools to perform the changes that will adapt the player, but a small emphasis on the possibilities available has to be done to ensure that all the desired changes can be accomplished.
There are many other features, such as the inclusion of subtitles, thumbnails preview, and even virtual reality content playback. Modern video players share essentially the same base functionalities. When choosing a video player, it is important to take into account that at a functional level, they all will be able to take on most use cases.
Finding distinctions between video players
It might seem at first sight there is no clear way of justifying choosing one player over another. Still, there are other factors to take into account. Differences arise mainly due to the contrast between open source and commercial video players. In the remaining part of this article, we will go over different factors that distinguish one player from another, caused in most part due to the distinction between open source and commercial code bases.
Deployment and support
One of the most visible differences between video players is the documentation and help available. The leading players we showed in the graph at the beginning of this paper offer this information, but with different approaches.
Commercial players stand out for having guides that make it easy to perform critical tasks, such as the installation, and feature better customer support for both developers and end-users. Beyond that, however, technical support for tasks such as deployment and video playback problem solving is a key differentiator – not all of them have it.
In the case of open-source players, the documentation is usually more extensive and technical. Its focus is on making sure that developers fully understand how the player works and how they can make modifications or even add functionalities. These are typically accompanied by more straightforward guides that facilitate the integration process of these video players. However, they often lack general use guides and, in some cases, guides for specific functionalities.
A connected ecosystem
Many of the functional aspects of a video player, as we have discussed, have a high degree of similarity.
Some of the functionalities that we have seen previously, such as live playback, advertisement, and content protection, require third-party software. It is especially true in the case of open-source players, where compliments are available in abundance.
Integrating an ecosystem of external services provides us with more capabilities in the context of our video player, but the extent of these depends on the player. Open source players have a clear advantage since they inherently allow to create and expand their functionalities easily. With commercial video players, it merely depends on what it was built to enable – and from the perspective of a developer, this level of control can make or break the video player choice.
Taking into account third-party services and capabilities will be critical in choosing a player. It will also lead to a better understanding of how the selected player will integrate with our platform and environment. This knowledge is not only useful for adding functions, but for adjusting other processes to optimize the reception and reproduction of the video as well.
Ultimately, the open-source environment is better for integrating complementary service tools to improve our player. Commercial video players will have support for many of these services but may be more limited, and in some cases, certain video service providers do not allow direct access to the video player by limiting its control.
The reach of our video
Another significant difference between video players is their compatibility across different browsers, devices, and operating systems. Video consumption on mobile devices is growing at a rapid rate, and video players that do not take this into account with device compatibility will leave your audience stranded.
The winners in this category are those who provide viewers access to content through multiple platforms – but of course, having additional platforms, operating systems, and devices increases the complexity of management. Specific video players providers offer (aside from the web player) development tools (SDKs) to create applications for mobile devices and smart TVs. This takes away some of the complexity and helps create a more consistent experience across all devices.
On the other hand, open-source projects tend to be built for a single platform, requiring a different player for each channel. This leads to a more convoluted situation, as long-term development will require additional tracking and maintenance.
The evolution in device usage means that content access from multiple platforms is critical, but it’s up to you to decide whether using a single platform (commercial) or multiple (open source) is the best use of your resources.
Preparing for the future
With video becoming one of the most popular forms of content distribution, it is one of the most improved-upon technologies – including reducing latency for live broadcast.
Low latency has become a common industry objective in the past years and will prime OTT services to take over traditional broadcasting. A few primary technologies have approached it: Apple’s Low Latency HLS (LLHLS), Common Media Application Format (CMAF), and WebRTC.
Choosing a player that is compatible with WebRTC increases the complexity, as the method the system uses to playback the video might not be compatible with many players. LLHLS and CMAF use, on the other hand, the more used HTTP protocol to stream video.
Newer functionalities, such as virtual reality, are not currently necessary in most platforms due to their limited prevalence. However, innovation moves fast, so it’s in our interest to have a player that will support the implementation of such technologies in the future.
Making the decision
Functionality such as streaming, advertising, and analytics is similar across all the different players. Distinguishing the difference between one and other results in a complicated task. On the other hand, factors like the ecosystem or the level of control are what set apart a video player from the next one.
By choosing an open-source player, you are entirely in control over the player’s functionalities – but at the expense of the necessary extensive knowledge and staff-hours for building applications on top of an open-source player. Still, this setup allows you to make decisions on how each parameter performs while still incorporating external plugins – and this degree of flexibility is only possible with this type of player.
On the other hand, a solution approach does not require any technical or advanced knowledge – instead, all of the challenges are dealt with by the provider’s video player support team. As such, the benefits of this type of player revolve around saving time on the implementation and day-to-day operations. However, this convenience comes at the cost of customization being limited.
Depending on the time to market of your new service, your budget flexibility, or the technical knowledge of your team will end up deciding which side the decision will lean to. The concepts presented can reduce the intricacy of this decision. Overall, most video players can work in most scenarios, but choosing the most appropriate one for your use case can improve the user experience and make your platform stand out.
About the author
José is part of the Teltoo team, whose software-only decentralized video delivery technology helps live-streaming providers to improve quality and optimize delivery costs.