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YouTube's 'HTML5 First, Flash Second' Position Is Marketing Hype
Videos on YouTube now default to HTML5 playback first, a decision that seems designed to attract headlines rather than solve problems.
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In January, YouTube revealed that the site’s video player now attempts to use HTML5 before relying on Adobe Flash Player for video playback. YouTube serves as a model for many engineering teams. Indeed, at VideoRx, in those instances when clients were surprised their business requirements called for a Flash-first playback scenario (defaulting to Flash, when available, instead of HTML), we’d often cite YouTube’s playback priority to make them feel more comfortable.

YouTube cites five primary reasons for the switch to default HTML5 playback:

MediaSource Extensions, or MSE: This term refers to the W3C specification enabling JavaScript to deliver byte streams to audio and video codecs within web browsers that support HTML5 video. You can find more information about the limited browser support for MSE on JW Player’s website.

VP9 video codec: This is an open source royalty-free codec, While the HTML5 standard doesn’t endorse any particular codec, banner-waving standards developers prefer royalty-free technology. While the most widely used video codec for web video is AVC/H.264, licensing fees might apply for commercial use of the video content. In keeping pace with the latest H.265 codec, Google is trying hard to convince the video industry that its codec is worthy of consideration. Apple and Microsoft, though, remained unconvinced.

Encrypted Media Extensions (EME): Often referenced alongside MSE, EME offers the ability to protect streaming content with industry-endorsed encryption and DRM. Support for EME typically mirrors that of MSE, although Opera currently only supports MSE and not EME. YouTube can license and sell more copyright-protected content using EME with MSE without paying for DRM services used for plug-in-based playback.

WebRTC: This emerging standard for real-time communication (RTC) between web browsers has been lauded by Google and embraced by many browsers (see go2sm.com/l). As is the case with VP9, Apple and Microsoft have yet to jump on the WebRTC bandwagon. YouTube can implement WebRTC for live streaming video for those viewers watching with a WebRTC-enabled browser.

Fullscreen: The HTML5 Fullscreen API enables webpages to be viewed without any browser chrome surrounding the page layout, enabling a fullscreen video experience. Of the five features in this list, this API is more widely supported than the others—mobile browsers have yet to embrace this feature, though Android browsers are leading the charge.

At first glance, YouTube’s announcement seems to be yet another death knell for Adobe Flash Player. Instead, I firmly believe that it’s more of a marketing effort disguised within a tech community post—any announcement mentioning HTML5 will be received well in just about any context. Regardless of personal preference for player technologies, anyone in the business of video should have one primary objective: Enable video to play in as many places as possible given your business requirements. Those requirements dictate your availability and prioritization of tech stack.

As an example, in a recent conversation, a prospective client was concerned that his use of Flash RTMP for a low-latency live stream was being met with disapproval from his work colleagues because it is not strictly an HTML5 solution. I reassured him that low-latency live streaming was not going to be a reality anytime soon with HTML, because of the state of HTTP streaming technology.

However you decide to deploy your online video, just make sure you’re using more than one player technology to enable video playback. Flash Player and HTML5 work together to increase your reach, especially with H.264-based workflows.

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Streaming Media as "YouTube: HTML5 First, Flash Second."

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