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Most people don’t realize just how important the Associated Press is. The news cooperative — owned by its U.S. news organization members — has been around since 1848, and now supplies 8,500 subscriber news outlets with text wire stories and photos, and 5,000 radio and TV outlets with audio and video content. And online, the service is ubiquitous, popping up on major news site after major news site.

But for a service with such global reach, the AP made a recent business decision that will actually lower its reach. As of today, AP member sites will offer free streaming video of about 40 clips per day, but with a catch: The new AP Online Video Network is powered by Microsoft’s MSN Video, meaning you must use the Microsoft browser, Internet Explorer (IE), to view it online. If you use Apple’s Safari browser or Firefox or Netscape or Opera or any other alternative browser, you’re out of luck.

And the timing couldn’t have been worse for the AP to launch the service, as the news wire has confidential video of President Bush being briefed on Hurricane Katrina from last August 29. As of 10:30 am Pacific Time today, Google News showed 920 stories online based on the AP story, but those without IE were left unable to see the key video scenes on many sites.

So what’s the big deal, you might say. Most people use Internet Explorer or at least have it loaded onto their PCs or Macs, right? It’s true that IE had about 85% of the browser share in February, with Firefox at about 10% and Safari at 3%. But in Europe those numbers are even stronger against IE, with Firefox having more than 20% of the browser market — mainly due to home surfing without IE.

Butt the AP and its member sites are requiring millions of Net users to either download or open a new application in order to see its video. And the Net doesn’t work that way if you want to reach the most people the fastest way.

This issue came to a boil on Poynter’s Online News email list yesterday, a discussion group made up of professionals who work on the newspaper sites you know and love. Michael Bazeley, senior web editor for the San Jose Mercury News, was flummoxed as to why the AP would do this to users.

“I can’t fathom why any online news pub would want to alienate so many users, especially when cross-platform Flash video is so mature and widely available, and when the video is generally available at so many other sources, such as Yahoo and CBSNews.com,” Bazeley wrote. “I can’t believe we’re still foisting platform issues on our users.”

After much back and forth, Sue Cross, the vice president of online for the AP, jumped in to the email discussion to try to quell the furor. But her main points were that Microsoft made the deal happen quickly and that the software giant has a great sales force to sell ads (the revenues of which will be split by members who host video and Microsoft). As for compatibility issues, the AP is concerned but not really doing anything about it.

“We are actively engaged with Microsoft on compatibility issues and we
have received a very positive response from them,” Cross wrote on the list. “MSNBC is faced with the same compatibility issues as the [AP video network] and is the largest video streamer among news and information sites. Microsoft is very aware of AP members’ concerns regarding issues of platform and browser incompatibility.”

Microsoft gave the AP a “very positive response” about compatibility issues? Yes, they’re overwhelmingly positive that it will work with the Windows Video Player. But what about users who are hitting an IE-required wall? They haven’t been heard from yet, but guess where they can get news video served through Flash, a technology that runs on almost every browser: Reuters. The rival news service recently made a deal with startup Brightcove that allows any news site or blog to run Reuters video using a player that is agnostic to your browser type. Imagine that.

Reuters chooses an open solution that let’s anyone run its video on nearly every browser (and also share ad revenues), while the AP requires people to use the IE browser. Adam Gaffin, executive editor of tech trade site NetworkWorld.com, explained the situation on the Online News list better than I could.

“The issue isn’t Microsoft’s business practices,” he wrote. “The issue is a decision by Associated Press that the immediacy of revenue from Microsoft’s ad network is more important than the fact that X percent of people using AP member sites will not be able to view its product (at least, not initially). When we [at Network World] decided on a video platform, we went with Flash because of the cross-browser compatibility. But we have a dedicated sales staff (in a niche market) so we didn’t face the revenue issues described by AP. Our first advertiser? Microsoft.”

What do you think? Is this issue overblown by media insiders, or are you upset that you will be required to use IE to view AP video on hundreds of news sites? Hit the comments below to share.

UPDATE: I’ve done some random testing on various news sites that run AP video. I am using a Firefox browser on a PC and have Windows Media Player installed on my computer.

On San Diego’s Cox.net site, I do see the videos after the Windows Media Player pops up. On Yahoo News’ AP Video page, I can see the videos on the Yahoo-branded video player. (Note that Yahoo is not a member organization of the AP and has a different arrangement to license AP video.)

But on the AP’s own video page, I see the typical wall asking for me to use IE.

Join in the fun! Send along your experiences and misadventures trying to watch AP video at your favorite news site and I’ll add them in a future post.

UPDATE 2: Sue Cross of AP writes in the comments to clarify the issue. Right now, sites that are in this new network (numbering 450 and counting) will require IE to see video. But AP continues to license video to other sites that can show it how they want — so not every site will have the IE requirement.

“People might mistakenly think AP video is available only with an IE browser,” Cross wrote. “AP has been providing video to websites for years via FTP, and continues to do so. The Katrina video got wide play in the new Online Video Network — but also huge play beyond it. AP members that want to take advantage of the Network’s advertising support in order to get a robust news video service up quickly can do so. We are quite comfortable that the option is a smart business decision for them and for us.”

That might be true, but I’ll stick by my assertion in the post that the AP will not reach as many Net viewers with this deal, and likely anger people who hit an IE-only wall. More power to them and Microsoft to fix the compatibility issue.

UPDATE 3: I’ve followed up on this post with an Open Source Reporting post that lists other online video services that require Internet Explorer or shut out Macs. I’m calling on readers to send in more entries to the running list.

UPDATE 4: I’ve also started another Open Source Reporting list, this time a “whitelist” of online video services that will work cross-platform with Windows, IE, Firefox and on a Mac. Check out the list and let me know of your favorite cross-platform video sites.