October 29, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Browser Audio Recording Gives the Web a Voice

The Rainbow Add-On for FireFox lets web pages record and play back audio and video easily within a browser, with big implications for music, communications, and comments sections.

Mozilla, which makes the FireFox browser you might be reading this with, has a way to let regular webpages record audio and video and play them back with only a few lines of simple code rather than the more complicated Flash technology usually required for in-browser recording today.

This might sound like a wonky technical detail, but ultimately, it has big implications for people in general and music fans in particular.

Once web browsers can literally hear what you’re listening to (and see you, assuming you’ve given them permission, of course), they’ll be able to identify music playing in other programs or in the cafe where you’re sitting; record karaoke or more advanced audio projects directly onto the web; let you hear what your favorite artists are recording; and other fun stuff developers have yet to dream up.

For now, we must surrender the fantasy of ranting, finally, with our own actual voices, into the comments sections of columns with which we disagree — if only due to the early stage of this technology. Mozilla released an early, Mac-only, FireFox 3.5-only version of the Add-On on Thursday, which it’s calling Rainbow on Thursday, apparently so-named because it pairs so nicely with the term “cloud computing.”

And the name is fitting. Music increasingly lives in the cloud (accessible on the web or in internet-connected mobile apps), so an easy recording/playback standard like this will create a new connection with that cloud that lets us record and play back audio in more places on the web. As with many early ideas, this one will likely spread, and Mozilla’s simple <audio> tags could become a web standard. (For geeks: Mozilla Rainbow uses the open source audio codec Ogg Vorbis so developers don’t have to pay MP3 royalties in order to use it.)

Developers can already record audio within a web browser, but doing so has typically required the use of Macromedia Flash. Not only does Flash not run on Apple’s popular iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), but it requires that the developer run a special media server rather than a plain old web server. Not only that, but one Mozilla developer we spoke with at SXSW said Flash makes FireFox crash — apparently he agrees with Steve Jobs that Flash is just bad news because it was “created during the PC era for PCs and mice.”

Regardless of where you stand on the Flash debate (or even if you don’t stand anywhere at all), Rainbow’s simple recording-and-playback technology is likely to lead to several pots of gold:

  • Music identification: Music identifying services like the ones that already exist on cellphones would be able to work within web browsers. Nevermind about any sort of software integration between programs — a laptop’s or smartphone’s microphone works just fine for identifying whatever songs are playing. Apps such as Shazam have done this for years, but once recording moves to the browser, music identification can be integrated into a wider selection of other programs.
  • Simpler online recording: Several online music studios including Indaba allow amateur and more experienced musicians to record music with each other using a Flash-based multitrack recorder. Indaba has been honing that system for years, but if Rainbow spreads,
  • Compatibility with Apple (and other) devices: Flash doesn’t run on iOS devices, meaning that millions of web browsers on Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch would be muted from online audio/video comments, recordings sessions, and so on. But Apple’s not the only one that will be happy about non-Flash recording: the ability to record with so few lines of code could benefit developers that could release something in Flash, but now, can use something more widely compatible.
  • Video controls: This is sort of a fringe feature, but it could still be fun. Because your browser will be able to see you through your webcam (again, assuming you’ve given it permission), apps will be able to control playback when you wave your hands one way or the other, select songs with a higher danceability rating when the dancefloor at your houseparty clears out, and all sorts of other fanciful stuff.
  • Audio/video participation in live concerts: Instead whispering “wooooo” to yourself as you watch a band perform live online, you should be able to yell it and have the band and other listeners hear it, with a slight delay using Rainbow, because it records entire files then uploads them, rather than streaming them live.