March 24, 2007

Swfdec officially adds Flash 7 video support (but not 8 or 9)

Author: Nathan Willis

Free software fans of YouTube jumped for joy last week when developer Benjamin Otte announced on his blog that the free Swfdec Flash player has reached the point where it can play YouTube's Flash video content. At that time the feature was only working in the project's Git repository, meaning only those users willing to clone the Git sources and automake their way to a binary could enjoy it. That, too, has now changed: Otte released updated packages to the public yesterday.
Swfdec and YouTube: success! Click to enlarge.

The new release -- tagged 0.4.3 -- is so far only available as source code, but in a friendly format most nondevelopers can work with. All it takes is a ./configure / make / sudo make install to put the necessary bits in place. The software comes in two parts: swfdec itself and swfdec-mozilla, the Web browser plugin. To compile the application, you must have development libraries for Cairo, Pango, Zlib, liboil, and Mozilla installed. To enable video and audio playback, you also need the FFMpeg and MAD libraries. Swfdec will compile without them, but you won't see what all the fuss is about.

Once compiled and installed, you can check whether Firefox or Mozilla detects the plugin by visiting the about:plugins info page. Swfdec should be right at the top of the list. A trip to YouTube demonstrates that it plays audio and video just fine -- although for now you cannot jump to arbitrary points in the video.

On the other hand, you can right-click on the video and save a copy of it to your computer. Otte nonchalantly dropped the bomb about that particular feature in his blog announcement.

Given what Adobe makes on sales of its Flash-authoring software, it is unlikely to add a "save a copy" feature to the official plugin. But the makers of youtube-dl might have some hefty competition.

Still, as big a milestone as YouTube support it, it is only possible because YouTube relies on the Flash 7 video codec. As Robin Miller explains in much greater detail, Flash 7 video is now old news.

Swfdec and blip: not so much. Click to enlarge.

Free software apps and plugins can play and create Flash 7 thanks to the FFMpeg library, but the newer Flash 8 and Flash 9 formats still have no such free implementation. You can already see this by paying a visit to blip.tv -- one of many YouTube rivals embracing the newer, sleeker video encoding format. No sound, no video, just a big gray "pause" icon.

YouTube still has the lion's share of video sharing content, but it is only by a fluke that we can see it using free software. If and when YouTube switches over to Flash 8 or 9 video, all that fun will stop.

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