Though video and other media delivery isn’t the core of the HTML5 specification, it’s an area where users are more likely to experience change or become aware of their browsers’ and devices’ limitations. Until now, browsers didn’t have the ability to deliver video on their own. Plug-ins for RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, and Flash were required for basic playback. HTML5 allows designers to place video in web pages as easily as images or text. But that creates another issue: which video format to use.
HTML5 provides a tag to embed video, but doesn’t actually decode it. In order for a browser to play a video file, it has to support the format. This is similar to the way image support first developed. Until the late 90s, most browsers didn’t recognize PNG image files (among others), even if sites used the correct code to add them to web pages. JPEG and GIF are still more widely used on websites than PNG since they were early standards. So picking a video format is likely to have long-term consequences.
No one group or organization is charged with making that decision, and in the end it may come down to which format the popular browsers choose to support. The two main contenders, OGG Theora and H.264, both have pros and cons. The first format is a free open-source codec, but to maintain the quality audiences are used to, OGC Theora required far more bandwidth than Flash-based video. The H.264 codec is much more efficient, and is already in use on such sites as YouTube and the BBC’s iPlayer, but it’s not open source. That means sites have to pay a licensing fee to use it. Video that’s free to watch isn’t subject to royalty payments by content providers now, but it could be in a few years if the large group of patent holders decide to exercise their right to them when the license term ends in 2016.
Most of this behind-the-scenes wrangling isn’t likely to affect end users now, but it will start to seep into their experience in the years to come. Today the contention around video is limited to mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. “Video is a solved problem for any device that supports Flash,” said Jeff Whatcott, vice president of marketing at Brightcove, a cloud-based online video platform. “There’s a lot of functionality that’s been built up over time to support it. When you use a device that doesn’t support Flash, you have to come up with another solution.”
Just before the iPad’s ship date, Brightcove announced its Experience for HTML5, a framework for delivering web-based video to browsers and devices that don’t support Flash but do support the new markup language. Elements of the typical web video experience on Hulu and YouTube, for example, such as pre-, post-, and mid-video ads, overlays for ads or notes, and video interactivity all come from the Flash player, not the video itself or the website’s code. Then there are the elements visitors don’t see, such as analytics sent to the provider and quality/bandwidth management to deliver uninterrupted clips.
“Many sites will struggle to deliver parity between what they’ve been able to deliver in Flash and, in the end, that’s going to mean a relatively poorer experience for customers,” Whatcott said. With so many factors in play, About.com’s Kyrnin admits that HTML5 and the lack of definitive video standards definitely creates complications for content providers; companies that want both iPhone and Internet Explorer users to view their videos have to create it in at least two versions already.