The thwacking sounds of bats striking balls will once again fill stadiums, as Monday is opening day for Major League Baseball. This year, Microsoft will watch from the sidelines.
MLB.com no longer uses Microsoft's Silverlight to stream games to its 500,000 subscribers. This season fans will watch live and on-demand video via Adobe's Flash player.
In November, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the league's tech unit, announced it would discontinue using Silverlight, the browser plug-in that MLBAM had signed up for barely a year earlier. The decision was not insignificant. MLBAM not only runs the profitable MLB.com streaming-video service, the Web's most successful subscription service, but the group is also influential with other leagues and sporting events. MLBAM handles much of the back-end operations for CBS' Webcasts of the NCAA Basketball Tournament and this year will do the encoding for the 2009 Masters golf tournament (CBS is the parent company CNET News).
Baseball never detailed the reasons for dropping Silverlight but sources close to the negotiations between the league and Microsoft said it was a series of glitches and conflicts between the companies that led to the split.
First, baseball wanted Microsoft to make it possible for users to download Silverlight without having to possess administrative rights. When people are at work, it's often the company that possesses those rights and employees would need authorization to download the player. That frustrated plenty of MLB.com subscribers, according to the sources.
The other major issue was that baseball considered Silverlight too unstable. There were some high-profile glitches, including last year's opening day, which saw many MLB.com subscribers struggling to log in and others who were unable to watch games. The malfunctions lasted several days. The rift between Microsoft and MLBAM began to grow and hasn't stopped, said the sources, adding that lawyers for each side are still arguing over Microsoft's responsibility.
Through a spokeswoman, Microsoft declined to comment but did point us to plenty of other sporting events for which Silverlight was chosen, including NBC's Webcast of the 2008 Summer Games and CBS's online presentation of the NCAA basketball tournament. NBC also recently announced that it will broadcast the 2010 Vancouver Olympics using Silverlight.
But Silverlight was also suspected by many Netflix users of being the cause for a recent series of glitches that occurred with Netflix's streaming-video service. Microsoft appeared to acknowledge that its player was the cause of at least some problems when it said last month that Silverlight 3 could help Netflix customers who run lower-end computers and were experiencing dropped frames and poor viewing quality. Netflix has said that most of the feedback on Silverlight is positive.
Bob Bowman, MLBAM CEO, also declined to detail what happened with Silverlight. He did, however, acknowledge that MLBAM "has an ongoing dispute with Microsoft because of the significant problems we encountered last year." What Bowman wanted to discuss was Adobe Flash and the successful marriage of baseball and the Internet.
Q: How much better is your video player this year?
Bowman: The experience has been everything that we did not have a year ago...Nobody has seen true high-def before on the Web. (With this year's player) you can put it on any screen you want, there's no degradation at all. It has all the bells and whistles, picture-to-picture, DVR-quality pause, rewind, fast-forward, real-time highlights. The meat-and-potatoes of it of course is the picture quality itself and it is eye popping."
Q: How come your on-demand video subscription service appears to be more profitable than the other leagues?
Bowman: The nature of our game, we play every day, we have fans who watch us on Tuesday, talk about us on Wednesday, listen to us on Thursday and maybe go see us on Friday. They touch baseball every day. They just do it in different ways based on how much time they have. Today's society, the interactive-digital society, can stay in touch with baseball better than they've ever done before. That keeps getting better. The iPhone's MLB At-Bat application is one example of that.
It isn't because we're different or smarter. Baseball is just better. It's better suited for this kind of daily, hourly interactive conversation. Then you get the video and people have 15 minutes. You better give them the very best product you have.
Q: How much harder and more expensive is it to do high-definition streaming?
Bowman: First of all it's based upon what the park does. Probably only 70 percent of the games are in true high-def. About 30 percent of the games aren't in high def even on your TV. It's roughly doubling in terms of the costs. The infrastructure is more certainly more expensive obviously. But the daily coding and redistributing almost doubles the cost. It isn't arithmetic. As you know the video is even more than doubling, but you get rates and expenses by the time you're done it roughly doubles the cost.
Presumably the costs will come down. They are certainly moving in that direction for the last several years. But for us it was a relatively straight-forward decision to give our fans the very best.
Q: What did you see in Flash that impressed you?
Bowman: You see several things. You see a high-grade product that's in some form on 99 percent of the browsers. You've got something that's got mass usage. Secondly you see with Adobe a company committed to the customer experience in video with the Flash Player. We see a partner that continues to invest in their product. They have the same desire that we do. They want the Flash Player to be the best thing anybody has ever seen and we want that. When you partner with people like that, it's not a philosophical discussion. We know where we want to be now how do we get there.