Forget multitouch: By far the most disruptive — and overlooked — feature of the Flash Player 10.1 beta that Adobe launched this week is the ability to transmit video via P2P multicast. In fact, Adobe built some enhanced P2P capabilities into both the new Flash Player and Air 2 beta that could be used to replicate BitTorrent functionality within Flash, build large-scale P2P groupware solutions that work right within the browser and stream video to millions of viewers without having to pay a fortune for bandwidth.
Adobe has been hinting at big plans for P2P ever since it bought a small P2P startup called amicima in early 2007. It made some of amicima’s technology available to developers about a year ago, but restricted it to small-scale use cases like P2P video conferencing or multiplayer games based on a few Flash players directly connected to each other via P2P. With Flash Player 10.1, Adobe appears ready to open the floodgates. CDNs and P2P video solutions providers would be well-advised to take notice.
Adobe’s P2P technology is based on its proprietary Real-Time Media Flow Protocol (RTMFP), which was previously restricted to one-to-one connections. That means your Flash Player 10 could directly exchange data with another client, but not relay the data. Transmitting video to 10 other clients meant opening 10 connections to other Flash Players, a method that doesn’t scale very well.
All of that changed with 10.1, which supports true P2P multicast, making it possible to retransmit a video stream from a single source to a large number of viewers. And not just a few hundred viewers, or even thousands. “When we think of large, we think of millions,” amicima co-founder and Adobe P2P Project Lead Matthew Kaufman said when he introduced the technology to developers at last month’s Adobe MAX event. In fact, he said, it should be capable of handing viewing audiences larger than that of the U.S. presidential inauguration, which has to date been the largest live-streaming event ever.
Kaufman’s MAX presentation, which is available as an archived video online, is fairly technical, but it contains a few very interesting tidbits. Adobe put a lot of work into making Flash P2P both scalable and reliable, which is why it combined a number of cutting-edge video delivery mechanisms. Publishers can, for example, distribute a video stream via IPv6 multicast and back it up with P2P multicast, or they can source a stream from a server and then opt to distribute it via P2P. Kaufman also claimed that the latency of Adobe’s P2P implementation is a lot lower than many of the existing P2P video solutions out there.
The whole experience should be pretty painless for the end user. “A permission dialog box will pop up for people using Flash Player 10.1 in the browser for P2Pmulticast,” I was told by Adobe’s Flash Media Server product manager, Kevin Towes.
But wait — Adobe’s got a few more P2P tricks up its sleeves. Developers will also be able to use Flash player 10.1 to build various other P2P applications right within the browser as well as within Air. One possible scenario mentioned includes object replication, more commonly known as file-sharing. “It’s a lot like BitTorrent”, explained Kaufman, adding that one could use this to “write a crazy file-sharing application” or to “replicate how Groove worked in Actionscript.” Adding to that, Air 2 now supports writing your own file servers and similar stuff through a dedicated API.
We’ll probably still have to wait a few months before we can get a true grasp on what all of this is going to mean for online video delivery, but there’s obviously a potential for huge disruptions. For starters, P2P video companies might have a hard time convincing publishers to opt for their solution, if only for the fact that end users won’t have to install any additional plug-ins to access Flash P2P video streams. At the same time, P2P adoption could skyrocket, as live-streaming sites and others start to leverage Flash Player 10.1 to cut down on bandwidth costs.
So what’s in it for Adobe? Well, RTMFP is true P2P, but you still need a so-called rendezvous server to connect users to the P2P swarm before they can access the video. Adobe already offers this functionality though a hosted service called Stratus, which is capable of serving hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users. In the future, you’ll just use your own Flash Media Server as a rendezvous server. In other words: Adobe’s use of P2P may cut out a whole bunch of middlemen, but it still places the company itself squarely in the center of the online video world.