October 2, 2004

The future of Linux multimedia

Author: John Knight

No, Linux desktops' multimedia capabilities are not on par with Windows' -- things are now at the point where Linux is preferable to Windows.

Today the biggest Linux multimedia projects, like xine and MPlayer, are about to release full 1.0 versions, which means stable and powerful support. One of the net's biggest multimedia companies, Real Networks, has a brand new release of the ever-popular RealPlayer. Sound drivers via Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA) are well into 1.0 status, giving us fully functional surround sound and a stable API. As for visuals, The two biggest video card manufacturers, ATI and nVidia, officially support Linux.

Does that mean Linux multimedia apps have Windows licked? Well, I wouldn't say that. While there are many areas where Linux is clearly superior, there still exist a few areas that need to improve.

First off, Web multimedia is lagging. We have Linux support for Flash and pretty much
every video codec around, but it still remains far from easy to install the programs and plug-ins required to run these. There are various utilities available with Linux distributions that
help install these plug-ins, and recent improvements in Firefox also address these issues, but Web multimedia still needs work.

Second, we have an uncertain legal future when it comes to reverse engineering. A large
proportion of codecs and medium-access methods are closed source and we rely on reverse
engineering or code-breaking to view these.

Aside from watching various proprietary video codecs, the biggest issue is DVD playback. With a vanilla Linux installation, a user can watch a DVD, but only if it isn't encrypted (which means probably about 2 percent of DVDs these days). In order to watch an encrypted DVD, users need a library like libdvdcss. The legal status of projects that develop these libraries is very shaky.

What to do?

To bring Linux-based multimedia to a new level we need better communication between project developers. For example, with Mozilla, there are many choices for Web video and audio, including xine or an MPlayer plug-in, but they're all external projects. Why not have xine or MPlayer developers and the Mozilla organization working hand in hand, to give official support?

As for the DVD issue, the average home user just wants to play the darn things, not bang off a few copies. What if we petitioned the DVD Consortium for a set of standard DVD playback libraries? This would leave us unable to copy DVDs and stuck with pesky warning screens, but that's probably worth the price for commercial viability.

Finally, and moving away from purely multimedia concerns toward general Linux issues, most of us *nix nerds are comfortable with ./configure, make, make install, but the average Windows user would run screaming from any process that required him to run programs on a command line! All Linux programs have to be easy to install on any distribution. Thankfully, this issue is being addressed by a project called AutoPackage, which provides distro-independent packaging with an easy to use interface that even Windows users should be okay with. However, it's still in beta stage and probably won't be ready for another year or so.

Every year someone says that in about two years Linux will be ready for the desktop. I'm not going to give a time-frame, but rather gauge things by events. When the Web and multimedia developers are more united, and we're legally happy with the DVD Consortium, we'll be halfway there. When a user can jump onto any Linux box and easily install a new program, no matter where he got it, in exactly the same manner as he can on any other Linux box, we'll be ready with a standard desktop, multimedia aside.

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