Online video, or what we are increasingly referring to as Internet television, can't be really appreciated unless there are tools that simplify, facilitate and enrich the process of searching, playing, sharing and publishing online video content.
The new Democracy video platform, a free, open-source tool which just released its newest version, incarnates all these online video-related abilities, transforming itself in the space of the last few months into a fully fledged media-center-gateway with a stellar list of functions, from downloading torrent files, to searching the biggest and brightest sources of Internet video, to playing virtually any media file you'd care to throw at it.
Since Robin Good detailed Democracy's cross-platform launch in February of this year, some radical improvements have taken this free, open-source Internet TV platform to the next level.
While before Democracy offered a great way to access well organized RSS feeds of a host of Internet TV channels, it has now broadened its horizons to the extent that you could feasibly use it as the sole media platform that you will need on your computer, whether you are on a Mac, Windows PC or several of the more popular flavours of GNU/Linux.
With stunning good looks and full-screen playback, not even the faintest sniff of DRM, and the capacity to easily access a huge range of Internet programming, I can't hide my enthusiasm for this project. Now that the Democracy team have also made their application much easier on your system memory - a previous frustrating limitation of Democracy - this is a platform that will run smoothly on almost any system and is a welcome break from the iTunes and Windows Media Player models, with their requisite DRM, lack of interoperability and power-hungry efforts to sit at the center of your media playback needs.
In this feature-by-feature review, I look at what separates Democracy from the pack, and at the new improvements that have made this - in my humble opinion - a must-have platform for anyone interested in understanding and engaging the online video revolution, whether as a consumer or as an independent producer.
For while Democracy makes for an excellent all-in-one tool for media consumers, it is also a powerful platform for those looking to distribute their own media content across the web.
Key Features - at a glance
Before going into why Democracy has me breathless with enthusiasm, it might be worth mentioning in brief the key features that it now offers:
So those are the highlights, now let's have a look at them in a bit more detail.
Anyone familiar with iTunes will feel at home with the Democracy player's interface. It's a well presented, clean interface that puts all of the central features where you need them, with playlists, channels, searches and your media collection nicely gathered on your left, and the player / browser window on the right. The fact that Democracy started out as a Mac only platform shows in the attractive simplicity and usability of its design - it all feels very Apple.
The new search feature, which lets you search many of the major online destinations for Internet video (see more below) has been nicely placed to the left of the video player controls, so that running a quick search doesn't even require you to switch to the search menu. This is a nice touch that completes an otherwise well-designed, simple interface that is as easy-to-use (if not easier) than a standard cable or satellite TV GUI.
Channels that I have subscribed to will instantly let me know when new episodes are available with a blue-circled number that appears next to the channel. When I've downloaded episodes that I haven't watched, a green-circled number appears next to the channels and a total next to the new videos menu item. It's all very intuitive, and feels like a simple, graphically pleasing RSS aggregator, which is essentially what it is.
The channel guide is very well presented, easy to navigate and again reminiscent of iTunes interface for accessing videos. One key difference is that within the Democracy platform all of the video channels are free.
In addition to being able to run a search on channels, you can browse them in alphabetical order, by category, tags, popularity and even languages. Here anyone familiar with surfing video sharing sites like YouTube will not feel out of place, and the Channel Guide even has a YouTubesque front page with featured video content from various categories.
Inside the new Democracy player, there is a good range of channels available, and the platform has certainly expanded over the past year. Big names like Rocketboom and Ze Frank brush shoulders with home made animation, citizen journalism, international programming, educational fare, drama and pretty much everything else under the sun.
By making the platform open for anyone to submit a channel to, Democracy has managed to provide an easy resource to tap into the vast networks of Internet TV content being produced, all from a single media center gateway on your desktop.
Playing nicely with external media
Photo credit: Participatory Culture Foundation
Among the improvements made in the last few months the ability to search within major video sharing sites, download torrents and have Democracy player scan your hard drive for media files to add to your collection are among the key ones to highlight. Already a great tool for accessing hundreds of RSS video syndicated channels out on the web, by adding these additional features Democracy candidates itself decisively to become the single can't-do-without media player on your computer.
Democracy automatically gathers all of your audio and video files together, regardless of their file format, letting WMVs sit nicely alongside proprietary systems and their penchant for not playing nicely together. What's more, with the recent addition of a playlist feature, these files can be easily set up to play in any order you like, which is very welcome.
As Democracy's video player is based on the excellent open-source VLC player, which works with almost any media format out of the box without the need for installing those irritating codecs so often called upon by Quicktime or Windows Media Player, video playback is easy.
Furthermore, the addition of a search bar that will instantly scour YouTube, Yahoo Video, Google Video, Blogdigger, Revver and DailyMotion makes for an easy way to search, gather and yes, download, video clips from these popular sources, without even having to leave your desktop.
And it does bittorrent. It's great that Democracy also allows you to simply drag any torrent file from the net onto the player for it to start downloading.
The Democracy platform, rather than putting heavy stress on the producer's bandwidth, uses bittorrent to distribute files efficiently over the Internet in a P2P fashion, making this video platform a truly democratic mean of harnessing video access and publication on the web.
Finding legal torrents online has never been easier, and the well-stocked, free Archive.org is a great place to start. Legal torrents aside, there are also thousands of elicit captured-from-TV files gathered on the Internet, as detailed in Adam Pash's Life Hacker article. In this sense the Democracy Platform could be used to gather and watch almost any digital video in existence.
Photo credit: Participatory Culture Foundation
As Robin Good discusses at more length in his earlier coverage of Democracy, part of the 'suite' connected to the Democracy player is a great little tool called Broadcast Machine. Broadcast Machine gives you all you need to set up your very own RSS-powered internet TV channel (or channels), making the quick publishing of your video content to the web, and via Democracy, a very simple prospect.
As the Broadcast Machine website explains:
''Broadcast Machine is software you install on your website to easily publish video files and create internet TV channels (video blogs, video podcasts, video RSS feeds). Broadcast Machine gives you the option of using torrent technology to reduce or eliminate bandwidth costs, even when you are posting high quality video to thousands of people. It's free, open source software, and is designed for easy installation.
Broadcast Machine features an intuitive interface, integrated torrent creation, and flexible channel management. It also creates a browsable archive of videos on your website. Broadcast Machine is the perfect publishing tool for making channels that work with Democracy Player.''
Broadcast Machine is both Democracy player and iTunes compatible, allowing anyone with an RSS aggregator to find, collect and explore your content, and is both easy to install and customize. If you want to distribute your own video, this is a platform that will give you total control of your content, which cannot be said for services such as YouTube, who ask you to sign over many of your rights as a content creator when you upload video to their servers.
Keeping Internet TV open
Democracy is not just a well featured online video platform and impressively-equipped media center gateway, but the work of the Participatory Culture Foundation, and as such a project which sets its focus firmly on open standards, and an open-source approach to video content distribution.
Central to this is:
a) the use of an open platform able to run on almost any operating system,
b) open-source code that means that any user is welcome to tinker with Democracy and add their improvements to the mix, and
c) a devotion to RSS as a means of distributing and aggregating content.
Nicholas Reville has written extensively about how RSS can help to keep the future of online video open, rather than the preserve of a few large corporations.
''How do you avoid a world where YouTube is the arbiter of all video content?
You do it by centering the video experience around viewers rather than around video hosting companies.
That's not what the venture capitalists want, but blogs aren't what they wanted either (they wanted web portals).''
Democracy is every bit about putting internet television in the hands of the people making and watching it, rather than in the hands of the companies which are there only to find ways to monetize them. To do this it is necessary to make a video platform that puts viewers in the driver' seat.
Reville goes on to explain:
''Putting viewers at the center means giving everyone who wants to watch video a homebase where they can access videos from any hosting service or website. For miscellaneous videos, like the ones that have made YouTube so popular, this means a search engine that gives results from any service and let's you watch what you find without jumping around from site to site.
For more serious videos-- stuff that's produced by known creators on a regular basis (like a daily or weekly show) -- the best homebase is an RSS aggregator. There can be a desktop application (like the one we make) or a web-based aggregator. The important thing is that viewers can pull together video from anywhere on the web.''
RSS aggregation, then, serves as a great way of being able to access content from an almost infinite number of sources, combined with the ability to quickly gather it all together into one place. Furthermore, RSS aggregation allows for a separation of hosting and viewing services, which Reville sees of vital importance:
''This separation of hosting services and viewing services is crucial: viewers couldn't care less where the video is hosted, as long as they can watch it. A separation leaves publishers free to choose the hosting service that fits their needs best. If they like the elegant user interfaces of Blip or Vimeo>, they go there. If they like the opportunity to earn money with Revver, they go there. If they want to offer ultra-high resolution video, they might host torrents on MoveDigital. Or maybe they want to control their videos even more closely and host them on their own website (as Rocketboom appears to do). With RSS, publishers can be in control.''
Photo credit: Participatory Culture Foundation
This crucial element of control is far from evident when you upload a video to the likes of YouTube or its ilk, with their ominous terms of service that ultimately let you know that they can do anything they like with your video. The Democracy video platform was built from the ground up with freedom in mind, while leaving control of content firmly in the hands of producers.
In the following video (Part 1), originally published (with a full text transcription) over at Technology Evangelist, Reville discusses the roots of and thinking behind the Democracy platform.
As I think I have now made apparent, I have a lot of esteem for Democracy and the Participatory Media Foundation, in that they have managed to bring together so many impressive features into a single, free and open-source application that effortlessly straddles the cross-platform divide.
That in itself is an achievement, but coupled with the ease with which content can be browsed, downloaded and watched from a single, well designed application I have to say that there is no reason not to have Democracy installed on your computer.
As new online video distribution and publishing platforms battle for your attention, Democracy does a great job in combining video search, aggregation, playback and publishing in one smooth, easy-to-use and well designed cross-platform application.
Though the Democracy platform is yet in Beta and a version 1.0 is yet to be released, what I saw by testing and using this new online video technology has left me unequivocally impressed and ready to recommend to everyone a look to this truly empowering new video platform.
If all of this excitement has made you hungry for more, you might like to check out the following websites: