Miro (formerly known as Democracy Player) is an open-source Internet TV application that combines a media player and library, content guide, video search engine, as well as podcast and BitTorrent clients. Developed by the Participatory Culture Foundation, Miro aims to make online video “as easy as watching TV”, while at the same time ensuring that the new medium remains accessible to everyone, through its support for open standards. Described by some as the “Firefox of media apps”, the resulting effort is a slick looking and easy-to-use application — not a mean feat when dealing in open-source methodology — that gives Apple’s iTunes (the default media player and video podcast client for many) a genuine run for its money.
At first glance, Miro’s appearance is similar to iTunes, in part because the application is very Mac-like (including the Windows and Linux versions). But also because both applications have a lot of overlap in terms of functionality. On the left hand-side column are buttons that give you access to the Miro guide (a directory of channels which you can subscribe to); online video search; your local video library; new content which has completed downloading but which you haven’t yet watched; and a view of what’s currently being downloaded.
Just below these options are any “channels” that you’re subscribed to. Channels are Miro’s name for RSS 2.0 feeds which utilize media enclosures, the format commonly used by video podcasts. In addition to the Miro player, the Participatory Culture Foundation also provides software and a website designed to make it easy to publish Miro-compatible channels.
When you first install the application, a number of examples channels are already setup, grouped into folders, such as “News and Tech”. Folders not only provide a way of keeping things organized, but they also enable you to aggregate a group of channels so that new videos play back one after the other. Playlists can also be created manually, based on any videos in your library.
At the bottom of the screen are Miro’s player controls, with the usual play/pause, stop, and skip, as well as the option to go full-screen.
Miro’s content guide is far better than the equivalent video podcast directory in iTunes. Not only does Miro list over 1,500 channels but it’s also better organized, with content filtered by popularity, editor picks, genre, tags, and language. There’s even a section dedicated to HD video.
Subscribing to a channel is a one-click affair, from which new content is downloaded automatically. You’re also given the option — via a simple drop-down menu — to grab all episodes listed in a channel (not just the most recent), or to switch off auto-download altogether — that way you can handpick certain videos, rather than downloading every future episode of a show.
Miro has a built-in search function which accesses content from YouTube, Veoh, Google Video, Blogdigger, Revver, DailyMotion, and Blip.tv. Videos that it appear in search results can then be downloaded but not streamed, which I found a little frustrating as it means waiting to view a YouTube video, for example. However, downloading makes a lot more sense in the context of this next feature: the ability to create a new channel based on a specific search result.
As an example, I created a new channel based on the latest videos from YouTube that have been tagged “iPhone”. By dowloading rather than streaming, videos remain viewable even if they are subsequently pulled from the originating site, and the user experience consistent with regular channels. However, a better solution might be to offer users both options in which previews are streamed, and videos from saved search results are downloaded.
Miro’s “library” is where you can access any videos that have been downloaded, either manually or as part of a channel subscription. Additionally, the application can be used to manage virtually any video you have stored on your computer — Miro is compatible with most common video file types: DivX, Xvid, QuickTime, WMV, AVI etc — and you even have the option (found in “preferences”) to have Miro monitor particular folders on your hard drive, for any newly added videos.
As already mentioned, Miro has a built-in BitTorrent client so that you can subscribe to channels that use the peer-to-peer technology to lower the cost of distribution. (Evidence of the Participatory Culture Foundation’s mission to help create a level playing field for content producers.) It also means that Miro can be used to automatically download and watch television shows from file-sharing sites, which although not always legitimate, is useful none the less.
No iPod/AppleTV support
Unlike iTunes, Miro isn’t able to sync compatible video podcasts with an iPod, nor can it sync or stream content to the AppleTV (which is a real shame considering the application’s strong focus on HD content). Were Apple to open up its set-top-box to third party software developers, then a version of Miro that works with the AppleTV would make a lot of sense.
Miro is quite possibly the best video “podcast” client and player out there. Its multi-format support, coupled with a very well thought out user interface, extensive content directory, and support for a number of popular video sharing sites, makes it a formidable Internet TV application.
The project currently has four full time and two part time developers, and the Participatory Culture Foundation recently received a donation from the Mozilla Foundation (makers of Firefox), bringing their total funding to just over 1.3 million dollars. A source close to the project told me that one new feature being considered is support for third-party plug-ins (ala Firefox), and this could be the key to Miro supporting hardware beyond the PC, such as set-top-boxes and media extenders (think Tivo, PS3 or XBox360) and portable media players (iPod or Zune).
Why the name change?
When Democracy Player launched back in February 2006, the feedback received was that the name evoked different, yet equally negative responses. For many Americans it conjured up an image of yet another left wing media project, and to the rest of the world it was, rather bizarrely, being associated with the policies of the Bush administration. In contrast, the new name is purposely abstract.