Notes on HTML5, Flash, H.264, and Apple


With Steve Jobs of Apple and Flash maker Adobe becoming increasingly vocal about their shit I keep seeing a lot of wrong information being thrown around in regards to HTML5, videos, and Flash. Couple of things you should know…

What You Need To Know about HTML5 and Video

Some people seem to think that HTML5 by itself can play video but that’s not the case. HTML5 does not have some magic little super codec embedded. It merely uses the <video> element, which in turn then points to one or multiple versions of a video. H.264 is just one format one can choose to publish that video in. But this is not mandatory.

So What Does HTML5 Do For Video Then?
The thinking is that HTML5 figures out what codecs your computer can play. It then goes through the list of available versions of the video in question and plays the first one your computer is able to play. Smooth.
Except it’s not because it might still require multiple versions of the video. Why? Because if your browser doesn’t have the right codec and the video isn’t offered in a format for which your browser does have the codec then HTML5 won’t help here.
The problem then with H.264 is that…it’s not free. The MPEG LA licensing group has a fee structure that publishers as well as creators of encoders/decoders are supposed to pay, but for some reason this isn’t ever discussed. Probably because some publishers are exempt from having to pay the fee until 2015 (was 2010, got extended), so folks think everyone’s exempt. Not so.
So really what needs to happen is that ONE video codec/platform becomes the mandatory standard everyone encodes to if/when they begin publishing via HTML5. IF that codec is H.264 then there’ll be the question of licensing fees. If Apple has its way, H.264 will indeed become the standard. I doubt they’ll pay everyone’s licensing fees though…
HTML5 is not the magic pill certain people want you to think it is. Don’t get me wrong – HTML5 is great and will be the future standard. But it is important everyone gets on the same page with this thing or it’ll just be another standards-nightmare.
Another problem is the fact that HTML5 is just not ready yet. Internet Explorer (unfortunately still the most widely used browser) doesn’t support it yet. I’m sure it will “in the future” but not right now. Apple’s argument is that HTML5 and H.264 is the future and that’s probably true. But you’re buying the iPad/iPod/iPhone NOW and not in the future.
Flash Ain’t Just for Videos
But let’s say all that’s squared away. We still have only solved the video problem. But Flash doesn’t just do video. Yes, Flash is behind a lot of those annoying ads, but also animations, games, and a bunch more. You may not realize it but a lot of stuff you see and do is based on Flash at this time.
You can not expect web developers to re-create all this stuff in other, open formats now just because Apple wants it that way.

Personally, I understand where Jobs is coming from, and I’d love strict standards for video. Makes my job easier. But I also know that HTML5 and that elusive one-codec-for-video standard is far from realistic right now. I think for right now, a device does need to support Flash in order to get the full web experience. Everything else is just watered down at this point, and I’m not paying for watered down web. I’m liking what Android is doing for the smartphone market.

Your thoughts?

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