Adobe’s Advanced DRM Opens Faster Track for Premium Video

 Florian Pestoni, Flash Access product manager, Adobe

Florian Pestoni, Flash Access product manager, Adobe

February 15, 2011 – Long in the making, Adobe’s new Flash Access 2.0 digital rights management system has quickly established a market footprint for premium content that could greatly facilitate monetization efforts of Web video suppliers.

That’s because the PCs and Macs equipped with the version of Flash Player 10.1 that runs Flash Access represent the vast majority of connected computers, notes Adobe’s Flash Access product manager Florian Pestoni. “We shipped the last release of Flash Player 10.1, which is the one where Flash Access was first supported, in July, and by the end of the year we had passed 85 percent penetration of connected computers worldwide, which is probably the fastest rollout and scaling of a DRM in history,” Pestoni says.

Flash Access is designed to support a variety of business models, including video-on-demand, subscription, electronic sell-through and rental, Pestoni adds. “What it really means if you’re a content provider and looking at how to monetize high-value content in a way that satisfies the security requirements of content owners, this has created an immense opportunity,” he says.

A case in point is a new deal struck between Adobe and thePlatform that will make the DRM readily accessible for use with the high-value content offered by thePlatform’s many affiliates, including Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable and a host of programming networks and other suppliers. In what was described as an alliance, Adobe and thePlatform will integrate thePlatform’s mpx video management system with the Adobe Flash Platform to make implementation of Adobe Flash Access an intrinsic component of managing and publishing content through the mpx dashboard over both fixed and mobile networks.

The first announced customer for thePlatform’s implementation of Flash Access is In Demand, the supplier of VOD content to cable MSOs.“The alliance of thePlatform and Adobe will result in a significant upgrade of the video management and distribution capabilities for our online video products,” says In Demand CTO John Vartanian. “With the addition of these cutting-edge technologies In Demand will be able to provide our affiliates with secure, high-quality streaming video delivery.”

Augmenting the usefulness of the Flash Access DRM is the fact that Flash 10.1 Player supports Adobe’s new streaming platform HTTP Dynamic Streaming, which enables adaptive streaming over regular HTTP (Hypertext Transport Protocol) connections. This means content suppliers, by using tools for integrating content preparation for HTTP Dynamic Streaming into their existing encoding workflows, can leverage their own and third-party content delivery networks, end-user home networks and other elements of existing caching infrastructures to deliver the protected content.

Adobe makes clear it still recommends its Real Time Message Protocol (RTMP) as “the protocol of choice for lowest latency, fastest start, dynamic buffering, and stream encryption.” But it acknowledges that HTTP Dynamic Streaming affords content creators, developers, and publishers “more choice in high-quality media delivery while maintaining the reach of the Adobe Flash Platform.”

Flash Access 2.0 works across both streaming modes supported by Adobe. “You can use RTMP and leverage the massive CDN installed base for Flash Media Server or use HTTP Dynamic Streaming,” Pestoni says.

All of this represents a sea change in the positioning of Flash as a platform for the Web video market. Heretofore, the only DRM native to Flash Player was RTMPE (Encrypted), which serves to provide protection between the server and the client in the RTMP environment without covering the points of vulnerability to hacking that are intrinsic to all devices. In contrast, Pestoni notes, Flash Access 2.0 persistently protects content no matter where it is cached or rendered so that it remains protected to the moment of playback. And then only the smallest blocks of content required for viewing moment to moment are rendered in the clear before returning to an encrypted state.

“You can use Flash Access to protect downloaded content where you acquire the license for playback locally in a disconnected scenario,” Florian adds. “You can do progressive download where you start watching as the content is being downloaded.”

Marty Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing at thePlatform, makes clear the new DRM has passed muster as a protection mechanism for high-value content. “Adobe has gone through the process with studios to get certified as being good enough for premium content,” Roberts says. “And Adobe is also participating in UltraViolet [the Hollywood-backed platform for supporting electronic sales of movies in the DVD release window] and has been certified by the studios as part of that.”

Pestoni acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring the protection mechanisms of Flash Access to all devices beyond the PC and Mac. A big step in that direction occurred in October with Adobe’s launch of AIR for TV, which extended Flash Access support to TVs, set-tops and Blu-ray players that employ the AIR 2.5 application development runtime to bring content and apps from various suppliers into the TV viewing domain.

By working with specific OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), including Samsung, which will support AIR for TV on all its 2011 connected TVs and Blu-ray players, Adobe is incrementally extending Flash as a premium-content distribution medium into the TV environment. But the more important agenda is to embed support for Flash Access into the silicon that goes into TV and mobile devices, which is what will get the DRM to a scale commensurate with wide-scale use of Flash as a premium content distribution medium.

SD Microsystems announced support for Flash Access in its chips for connected TVs at CES, and Adobe is making progress with other chip suppliers not only in the TV realm but also in mobile, Pestoni says. “Ultimately our goal is to have Flash Access support on every device running Flash or AIR,” he says. “We’re not there yet on mobile, but, rest assured, we’ll get there.”

The fast turnover in CPUs and the battery power constraints in mobile are especially challenging, Pestoni adds. But such challenges are diminishing with the evolution of technology and with the greater processing capabilities of tablets, which, as Pestoni notes, have become the primary driver to the extension of premium content into the mobile domain.

Adobe’s work with thePlatform affords content suppliers considerable flexibility to leverage the Flash Platform in a seamlessly integrated context with existing modes of operation through mpx. For example thePlatform’s customers can use the Open Source Media Framework (OSMF) with thePlatform’s Feeds Service to deliver video into various playback environments. Additionally, the companies note, thePlatform’s mpx video management console is built using Adobe Flash BuilderT 4 software and includes an Adobe AIR client for file uploads, which allows customers to upload, manage and publish video with a simple Web-based interface.

For mobile publishing, the companies have collaborated to provide significant integration so users can have an easy-to-use experience on touch-screen devices. Utilizing support for Adobe Flash Player 10.1, thePlatform’s solution detects when consumers are accessing video from mobile devices running Google’s Android 2.2 “Froyo” and reconfigures thePlatform’s video player accordingly.

The availability of Flash Access is a big step forward in the market’s need for convenient ways to implement premium content protection, especially in the computer realm where Flash has such a ubiquitous presence, Roberts notes. “But when you move off PCs and Macs things get more interesting and more difficult,” he says.

Presently thePlatform also supports legacy WindowsMedia protection and the high-level protection afforded by Widevine, now a unit of Google. And it intends to add to the variety of robust DRMs as it helps customers expand the reach of premium content to connected TVs and mobile devices of every description, Roberts says. “We understand we’ll have to support everything in the market,” he comments.

“What happens on our platform,” he explains, “is our customer is looking at a product and the protection selection comes up [in the mpx publishing process], and they begin determining whether all they need is streaming protection such as RTMPE or Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming DRM or they need the fuller DRM protection. Then they determine what devices they’re targeting and choose the DRMs that work with those devices. Our job is to support as many DRMs as possible so that as our clients work through the very messy matrix they can make a clean decision and we can provide the right technology.”

Right now, given the fact that some streaming systems are not natively associated with a high-level DRM, as is the case with Apple’s popular HLS, the only way to exploit the adaptive streaming reach associated with such platforms is to import a more robust DRM from another supplier, which requires pre-integration with that streaming player, or replace the player altogether with a streaming system that comes with a more robust DRM. Various vendors such as Widevine, Motorola’s SecureMedia and Cisco with its VideoScape initiative are working on such solutions.

While all this will gradually facilitate push-button configurations of DRM with adaptive streaming platforms for distribution of premium content across the entire device universe from thePlatform’s mpx dashboard, there’s another move afoot, namely, the aforementioned UltraViolet initiative (see January issue, p. 1), which could greatly simplify matters, Roberts notes. “The hope on the horizon is what will happen if we see traction with UltraViolet,” he says. “They’ve mandated that everything move to a common file and encryption format. If everyone uses a common encryption format we’ll all get to a better place where DRMs are competing on their merits rather than on which devices they’re compatible with.”

The real measures people should be looking for in weighing DRMs are things like how many licenses they can offer per second, how they handle multiple tenant scenarios, their ability to cover points of unencrypted content exposure on different device architectures, how they take care of protecting metadata and subscriber authentication information that’s stored on devices, etc. “We’re really excited about the promise of UltraViolet,” Roberts says.