Cutting Through PR-Speak - Part 1: HTML5 Video

June 28th, 2010

HTML5 has certainly been making the rounds in the news lately. With Apple's on-going PR campaign against Adobe's Flash technology, comes mounting misconceptions about what exactly HTML5 is, what it can do, and what it means for end-users.

I hope to clarify several of the most glaring misconceptions over the next few posts. Today I'd like to focus on the most publicized and misunderstood issue of HTML5 video.

HTML5 is not a complete standard

Before we even get into video itself, it is worth noting that for all the publicity HTML5 is getting as the next big thing, it isn't even final. W3C, the standards body responsible for HTML5, still classifies the HTML5 spec as a "Working Draft" as of this writing.

This means that none of the features are final and are still subject to change. While many browser makers are being pro-active in adding support for the proposed HTML5 features, there is inconsistency in implementation between browsers and level of support.

In other words - HTML5 is not supported in its entirety by any browser currently available.

Why HTML5 video?

One of the biggest areas of growth for Flash has been in delivering video. Flash was probably never best suited to the task, but due to the market penetration the plug-in had across the Internet, it evolved into the defacto standard for delivering web video.

HTML5 seeks to alleviate the web's reliance on a single plug-in for video by bringing native video support to the browser negating the need for a plug-in. There are many high-profile live implementations of HTML5 video on the web today that target modern browsers and Apple's mobile devices like YouTube, Vimeo, Time Magazine, NPR, and others.

However, while Apple is aggressively pushing HTML5 video for their iOS devices and modern browsers as an open alternative to Flash, what isn't open is the video codec Apple has chosen for their implementation.

What is a codec, and why does it matter?

A codec is a method of taking raw audio and video and compressing them into a single file for distribution, and subsequently decompressing the file for playback. Raw video is extremely large, and so codecs serve to produce the best possible size to quality ratio. For web video specifically, this is extremely important.

Several notable browser and smartphone makers like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are currently (or intend to in Microsoft's case) supporting the popular H.264 codec for HTML5 video. However several other bodies oppose this seemingly ad-hoc choice due to the fact that the H.264 codec is not open source and requires licensing. Organizations like Mozilla and Opera have posed the argument that an open video implementation without an open codec is two steps forward, but one step back.

However, the counter-argument in favour of H.264 generally revolves around the notion that H.264 is already widely adopted, has excellent performance, quality and compression, the licensing terms are clear, and all patent claims against the codec are accounted for. Contrasted to some of the open source alternatives proposed like Theora, it isn't clear whether or not they may infringe on existing patents, which makes them somewhat risky to use. In addition, both Microsoft and Apple are members of the licensing organization for the codec, which may also explain their preference.

To muddy the waters further, a new video codec called VP8 has recently been acquired by Google and has been released as open-source. Mozilla, Opera, Adobe, and Google, are all pushing for this codec to be considered for HTML5 video via the WebM Project.

So what? Does an open codec matter?

There are valid opinions on either side of this debate. It is logical to want to see an open source codec used in conjunction with an open standard like HTML5. Otherwise every piece of software that plays or authors video intended for the web will need to pay licensing fees for use of the codec. Others consider this a fair price to pay for access to a mature, robust codec with high-quality compression.

Personally, I don't feel comfortable handing control of such an important piece of the Internet to a private organization. Much like the arguments levied against Adobe's proprietary Flash technology, trading video locked into Adobe's Flash is in a way much the same as video locked into MPEG-LA's codec. Alternatively, browser makers could simply license and build the Flash plug-in into their browsers and achieve the same effect.

If we're going to go through the effort of converting the Internet away from proprietary video formats, we might as well go all the way.

HTML5 video is not a catch-all solution

While the prospect of an open video format is extremely enticing, there are several cases where it will probably never be used. A prime example is the distribution of broadcast television and film. Currently networks stream their content online and support it with advertisements. Since this video is locked away in a plug-in like Flash or Silverlight, the viewers of these streams are unable to download and re-distribute the content.

HTML5 provides no method of content or copy protection, which means it will probably never be used to distribute this sort of content.

What this means for end-users is the continued use of closed, proprietary technology - whether it be plug-ins like Flash or Silverlight, or platforms like iOS applications.

So while HTML5 video will clearly be a great step forward for web video, it will not fully replace Flash - at least not in this iteration. Therefore while Apple has valid reasons for not supporting Flash on iOS (namely Flash's notoriously poor performance), it cannot be denied that Flash video will remain a significant source of copyrighted video content on the web until a better solution emerges.