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HTML5's Open Source Solution?

Yesterday we discussed the impact on the HTML5 video tag debate that Microsoft's preview release of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) is bound to generate. At its Mix 10 developer's conference, IE9 was shown playing back H.264 video content directly in a browser window.

Microsoft's announcement follows those by other browser manufacturers that they would use either Ogg Theora or H.264 as native video codecs within their browsers, as well as the announcement in January that YouTube would include HTML5 video for use in the Google Chrome browser and Apple's Safari (on Mac desktop and iPhone mobile platforms).

What about those browsers that are not tied to a specific operating system? Yesterday, we briefly touched on a plug-in model whereby various codecs could be downloaded after the initial browser download. We've since learned, however, that the open source community is moving ahead with a different strategy.

The Wikimedia Foundation, whose presence at the Open Video Alliance conference last year showcased an attempt to generate an open source image, audio, and video repository using open source codecs, is working with Kaltura, Mozilla, and others to create an industry resource for video-related HTML5 implementations.

The group has launched a website—www.html5video.org—to provide an industry resource for HTML5 video-related technology demos.

“The world needs an open video standard which allows everyone to produce and share video, without licensing fees or browser plugins,” said Erik Möller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation. “HTML5 offers such a standard, and we've partnered with Kaltura to develop an open source HTML5 video solution for Wikipedia. We encourage you to check it out, and to support open standards in your web applications.”

While not specifically addressing the potential need for plug-ins for H.264 playback on the Firefox and Opera browsers, the Kaltura approach is to use HTML5 to its full advantage by allowing legacy or non-compliant browsers to access video content that has been programmed for delivery within the HTML5 video tag

. "Kaltura’s HTML5 video solution, which is already in beta testing on Wikipedia, allows publishers to use HTML5 video today without having to worry about specific browser, format and codec support," said Ron Yekutiel, Kaltura's chairman and CEO. “Our unique fallback mechanism ensures that all viewers can see and interact with videos regardless of their browser and format of the video."

Kaltura's Fallback Model
Kaltura's toolkit includes a skinnable video player, as well as an audio player, a media uploader tool, and an online video editor.

"The fallback model used by our library is more of an abstraction layer," said Dr. Shay David, one of Kaltura's co-founders. "None of the other 'fallback' methods let you address the Document Object Model (DOM) element with as complete of a HTML5 API set; they instead put a Flash or object tag into the DOM that can't be accessed in the same way that an HTML5 video object could be accessed."

I asked David if the gstreamer setup, mentioned yesterday, was a similar type of abstraction layer, given its ability to hold multiple codecs.

"With a gstreamer back-end to HTML5 you could use it multiple codecs," he said, "but we are not producing any plugin like gstreamer or dealing with playback at that level. Rather we focus on playback systems that are already in users' browsers across mobile and the desktop."

David went on to note that the types of playback systems were HTML5-native H.264 or Ogg, Flash and Java.

"If a visitor on Firefox comes to a site that is using the video tag with an H.264 source, the library will display the video to the user using Flash, if the Flash Player is installed on that machine," he said. "Likewise if using both Ogg and H.264 source are available [as noted in Henrik Sjokvist's HTML5 tutorial mentioned yesterday], then an IE8 user gets H.264 via flash while the Firefox user gets the HTML5-native Ogg playback."

The Open Video Alliance, backed by Kaltura and Wikimedia, among others, has been at the forefront of pushing for the HTML5 video and audio tags for the past year. The Alliance issued a statement saying that these defined standards will allow growth of full-screen and embedded video playback without the need for specific plug-in requirements.

"No codec technology is specified in the standard, but popular options include H.264 and OGG Theora," the Alliance stated. "HTML 5 is supported by many leading browsers, including Firefox 3.5, Safari 4, Chrome, Opera 10, and soon Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Widespread adoption of open video and HTML 5 can overcome some of the barriers that have hindered video from matching text and images in terms of fluidity."

By fluidity, the statement seems to indicate compatibility or interoperability, two of the main tenants of the HTML language from its outset.

The Wikimedia Foundation, whose Michael Dale is taking the lead on several of these abstraction layer solutions, ironically is only planning to use one codec on its website.

"We're only using the Ogg codec on Wikimedia Commons," said Jay Walsh, head of communications for WikimediaFoundation.org, "and by default on Wikipedia (the commons being the host site for all binaries). This is the plan going forward as well - to continue to support Ogg as our default, open codec and encourage the development and expansion of the HTML5 standards that support open video. Yet there's a very good chance we're only looking at Ogg on all implementations on any Wikimedia real estate."

Dale expanded on the abstraction layer beyond just the choice of video codecs.

"The 'abstraction layer' lets the developer community build additional functionality beyond simple video playback," said Dale, lead developer on the Wikimedia/Kaltura video implementation. "For example displaying timed text without having to worry about all the different way browsers can playback media files is one additional example of a seamless video playback experience.

David expanded on that idea.

"All those underling playback choices are abstracted," he said. "Other JavaScripts interacting with the player, such as displaying subtitles or a customized player interface, can interact with the video thats in the page in the same way regardless of the underling playback method. The library bridges that gap and lets an object be accessed consistently the way that HTML5 intends, regardless of the underlining player."

"This is different from other fallback player systems," he continued, "that just focus on displaying the video and do not address unifying JavaScript API access across underling playback types. Our library is trying to make the fallback as seamless as possible for both the browser and the end user."

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