Video on the Web: Plug-ins Required

There are many different video formats used by websites these days, and unfortunately, most of them are proprietary. After getting frustratrated by so many commercial sites ignoring Linux, I decided to do my own investigation of some noteworthy content sites to see if they are Linux friendly, can be made to work, or are downright exclusionary.

The Formats

Flash is quickly becoming the dominate format for multimedia on the web today. It has become so ubiquitous that many sites will not function properly without it. Originally developed by Macromedia, it is now owned by Adobe.

Windows Media
Windows Media is the bread-and-butter format for Microsoft and is not freely available, although there are plug-ins available for Linux that can play it.

This is a proprietary format that requires RealPlayer to run.

Quicktime is Apple's video format of choice. It is mostly used on the Web for movie trailers.

Silverlight is a newcomer to the Internet video scene. It was recently released by Microsoft and will primarily be a competitor to Adobe's Flash technology. An attempt is being made by the Mono project to create a Linux compatible version called Moonlight, but as it is available in neither the Debian nor Kubuntu repositories I did not try it.

The Plug-ins

Flash is available as a non-free plug-in. New releases are typically made on Windows first, although Adobe has committed to developing a Linux version as well. Version 9 for Linux was released earlier this year. A Free alternative called Gnash is also under development, but it currently only supports version 7 features.

VLC is a cross platform media player that provides its own codecs. It is available as both a standalone application and a Mozilla plug-in. It is used for Windows Media and Quicktime formats.

MPlayer is one of the most widely used media players around. It has even spawned a number of new interfaces that use the base MPlayer program as a backend. It is used for Windows Media and Quicktime formats. I used the mozilla-mplayer and w32codecs packages for this review.

Like VLC, RealPlayer is a cross-platform media player. It is available as both a standalone application and a Mozilla plug-in. RealPlayer is also affiliated with a Free Linux program called Helix Player.


Website Flash RealPlayer VLC MPlayer Notes
ABC No No No Firefox is supported on Windows and Mac's, but video won't play back in Linux.
Apple Movie Trailers No Yes Standard and HD content both use Quicktime. VLC could sometimes play the standard content, but crashed with HD.
CBS Yes Yes Yes Yes Uses RealPlayer or Windows Media, although Flash is required for the site as well. RealPlayer is not available through Firefox's download method and must be manually installed. Clicking to play a video triggers a pop-up, so if nothing happens you'll need to make sure your blocker didn't squash it. Installing RealPlayer 10 through a deb package also installs the needed plug-in and opens up access to all of CBS's shows. I did have an error message pop up once when I was starting playback, but it didn't seem to affect anything. The Full Screen button didn't do anything when I tried it.
CinemaNow No No Requires Windows due to DRM.
CNN Yes No No CNN Video uses Flash. The Live Video Beta doesn't play back and no error message is given to indicate the problem.
Comedy Central Yes
Fox Yes No Video Central only Uses Flash for the video clip on the homepage. FOX Video Central uses Windows Media. FOX on Demand features full episodes, but is only supported on Windows or Mac OS X and won't play.
Gatorzone Yes Yes
IMDB Yes Yes Yes Offers streams in Windows Media and RealPlayer format.
Joost No No Requires Windows or an Intel-based Mac to install the Joost software.
Major League Baseball Yes The frontpage uses Flash. Video clips require a Silverlight plug-in.
MovieLink No No Requires Windows due to DRM.
NBA Yes Yes Yes Frontpage uses Flash, but videos use Windows Media.
NBC Yes No No Online playback uses Flash. It played back as expected, but Toggle Full Screen didn't work. Downloads are restricted to those in the United States running Internet Explorer on Windows. ActiveX is required so browser spoofing won't work.
NCAA On Demand Yes
NetFlix No No Requires Windows due to DRM.
Yahoo! Movies Yes No Yes Standard format videos are Flash. Quicktime 7 is used for HD content.
Yahoo! Music Videos Yes
YouTube Yes

The columns indicate whether the plug-ins played back content successfully.

Sites that can be fully played include: Apple Movie Trailers, CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN, Gatorzone, IMDB, NBA, NCAA on Demand, NFL, Yahoo! Movies, Yahoo! Music Videos, and YouTube.

Sites that can be partially played include: CNN, Fox, Major League Baseball, and NBC.

Sites that could not be played include: ABC, CinemaNow, Joost, MovieLink, and NetFlix.


Web sites that unnecessarily restrict the operating system or browser when they serve video are the biggest problem for GNU/Linux users. Fortunately many sites can be made to work, but the focus of content providers on DRM and the lack of recognition of Linux as an alternative operating system is very limiting.

The one constant between all sites I tested is that everyone uses a proprietary codec for video distribution. For best compatibility I recommend having Flash, RealPlayer (or Helix Player), and MPlayer installed. If the site isn't specifically tied to Windows then those three will make it work.

One site making news in this area is the BBC. Their iPlayer program was announced as Windows only which ignited an uproar among the Linux community and looks to be triggering some changes. Hopefully more sites will get the message that Linux matters/

If you really need access to a website that checks for Windows then a potential option is running Firefox or Internet Explorer using Wine. Doing so is beyond the scope of this investigation so I did not try it, but it should work.