SebaKito via Creative Commons/Flickr.

Why is HTML5 Important

Pete Spande, Federated Media.

With preorders for Apple’s iPad rolling into the company’s coffers the future of HTML5 and its native support of video is just about here.

Apple famously does not support Adobe’s Flash video technology on the iPhone or Touch, and will continue to ignore the Web’s most popular video delivery mechanism when people get their hands on the iPad in April.

The background for all this is long and colorful. It includes barbs traded between Apple and Adobe with Steve Jobs first calling Flash software “buggy” and later going on to say that Adobe itself is simply lazy.

Adobe, of course, quickly shot back with Flash marketing manager Adrian Ludwig writing on the company’s blog, “It looks like Apple is continuing to impose restrictions on their devices that limit both content publishers and consumers… without Flash support, iPad users will not be able to access the full range of web content, including over 70% of games and 75% of video on the web.”

This sniping occurred during the iPad launch and soon developers and technologists were sparring over — and dissecting — which side is right. There are some delicious ironies of course. Notably that Apple, which is famous for creating hyper-closed, proprietary systems, is pushing for the open platform that HTML5 promises: a platform where no one needs plugins or other proprietary technologies in order to view or interact with content.

HTML What?

For a somewhat technical grasp of the what HTML5 is, try this page from Dive Into HTML5, a book in progress by Mark Pilgrim.

While HTML5 is about much more than video, the native browser support it promises for Web video will have tremendous repercussions for publishers and consumers in the immediate future. Think VHS versus Betamax, BluRay versus HD DVD. Among others, Dailymotion and Vimeo have released HTML5 players and support. So too has YouTube, the site most responsible for turning Flash into the defacto Web video delivery platform in the first place.

Blip.tv is also working on an HTML5 solution.

“We have an HTML5 player in development that should be out soon,” says Justin Day, Blip Co-Founder and CTO. “Right now it’s more of an experiment than anything else. Because we don’t have integrations for advertising or for analytics it’s not all that useful. It does work pretty well with the iPhone/iPad though.”

The inability to serve ads in a world where publishers need cash flow immediately is, of course, a major impediment for adoption.

Streaming Media East
This May we’re doing a deep dive on HTML5 at Streaming Media East. Join us if you can.

“The biggest reason ad serving would be difficult would be the cross-domain restrictions that exist on the browser,” Day explains. “Flash can make calls on remote ad servers more easily than Javascript can. Not to say that it’s not possible, just more difficult.”

Another reason for slow adoption is the nature of video itself. When preparing video for Web delivery, producers need to decide which codec to compress them with. Leading varieties include h.264 (often used with Blip, Brightcove and YouTube among others), VP8 which was created by recent Google acquisition On2 Technologies, and Ogg Theora, a freely distributed (as in no licensing fees) video compression format.

That’s all well, good and bit confusing in and of itself. The rub though is that our leading HTML5 browsers don’t all support the same codecs. For example, Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari support and can therefore play back h.264. Opera, Chrome and Firefox — true to its open source ethos — support Ogg Theora.

So HTML5 video producers need to decide which codec to use in order to target different browsers and platforms. This isn’t necessarily an easy task and some providers are keeping mum about how they’ll handle it.

“Support for HTML5 is just a TestTube experiment and a starting point,” YouTube spokesperson Chris Dale vaguely explains. “We can’t comment specifically on what codecs we intend to support, but we’re open to supporting more of them over time.”

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see what Microsoft’s Internet Explorer might support. Since it controls much of the browser market, the company’s decision could be a game changer.

“Microsoft has not yet officially announced how they will support the video tag,” says Michael Dale, Senior Developer at Kaltura, the open source video platform. “But their support is likely and they have been participating in the HTML5 working group.”

Interesting Thoughts

John Gruber of Daring Fireball recently wrote, “I’ve been writing about this saga for two years. My fascination with the subject is fueled by the fact that it’s so polarizing, and that it encompasses both technical and political issues.”

Morgan Adams, an interactive Flash developer, thinks the whole debate is besides the point because Flash interface metaphors don’t make sense on touch screen devices anyway.

Dale believes HTML5 makes it easier to integrate web technologies with video and the company has been rolling out interesting HTML5 solutions through its work with Wikipedia. An example, he explains, is “using HTML text in subtitles so people can add links to Wikipedia articles when using closed captions in Wikipedia.”

Beyond that, the company is making an HTML5 Video library available for Web developers. Part of the solution is to push forward with HTML5 support while gracefully falling back to Flash when users without the proper browser hit a page set for video delivery.

“This lets you take advantage of HTML5 video today with existing browsers,” says Dale, “without having to worry about how playback is supported across the underlining platform or browser.”

Confused yet? There’s no reason you shouldn’t be.

With the release of the iPad and various articles asking whether the device will be publishing’s savior, much depends on the future of video delivery. Video, after all, has become the Web’s most lucrative ad delivery format and publishers are increasingly trying to create more of it for their audiences.

“While HTML5’s video tag offers promise that there might be a single unified standard for video playback, early signs point to more, not less, complexity in the years ahead,” says Dave Wegman, CTO and Co-Founder of Twistage, a white-label video delivery network. “The straightforward nature of the video tag itself belies the fact that it is implemented and supported differently in each of the major browsers.”

As demand for HTML5-based services grow, he says, publishers and consumers shouldn’t have to concern themselves with which browsers support which codecs.

“Put simply, he says, “the video tag is an implementation detail.”

If only, for publishers and consumers, it were so easy.