HTML5 Comes of Age: It's Finally Time to Tell Flash Good-bye

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During the panel, Bitmovin presented movie distributor Flimmit as its case study. Flimmit formerly supported Flash via RTMP and progressive download. Bitmovin’s implementation involved two formats, DASH and HLS, which included multiple audio and subtitle tracks. The conversion, which involved a complete transcoding of the Flimmit library, started in November 2014 and went live on March 16, 2015. Though Flimmit doesn’t currently use DRM, the company plans to deploy DRM in the short term.

Figure 1 shows the implementation details of the Flimmit conversion, with platform-specific information regarding player, media, and DRM. Not shown are SmartTVs and Chromecast, which are supported via DASH.

CastLabs

CastLabs is a Berlin- and Los Angeles-based supplier of player technologies, multiple DRM system licensing, and encoding and packaging solutions. The company offers Android and iOS player SDKs as well as the DASH Everywhere player targeted at desktop browsers and Chromecast. DASH Everywhere uses MSE/EME on compatible browsers and falls back to Flash or Silverlight on legacy browsers. The player decouples the streaming protocol from the DRM to support Adobe Access, PlayReady, and Widevine Modular. Interestingly, the player can convert Smooth Streaming-encoded content for DASH playback, so Silverlight producers don’t need to transcode to DASH. The service is complemented by the company’s DRMtoday cloud DRM service, which supports Widevine Modular and Classic, as well as PlayReady, Access, Marlin, and OMA.

During the panel, representatives from CastLabs presented their case study on HBO Europe, which formerly used only Silverlight, but was forced to deploy a different technology due to Chrome’s phasing out of NPAPI plug-ins, including Silverlight. The integration started on Feb. 19, 2015, and went live on April 28, 2015, accelerated by the fact that HBO didn’t have to re-encode any content.

Flimmit/bitdash

Figure 1. Implementation details of the Flimmit/bitdash deployment

The implementation details are shown in Figure 2. Both Silverlight and HTML5 playback are used through the DASH Everywhere player. Essentially, HBO Europe substituted MSE/EME for Silverlight in Chrome and IE 11 and kept all other browsers, and the mobile strategy, the same.

HBO Europe castLabs

Figure 2. HBO Europe’s castLabs implementation details.

OpenTelly

Belgium-based OpenTelly takes a different approach than the previous two companies, eschewing MSE/EME support to distribute HLS content, including AES-128bit encryption and subtitles to HTML5-compatible browsers. It accomplishes this by a proprietary technology it developed that allows THEOplayer to support HTTP-based protocols such as HLS (DASH support is coming soon as well) in HTML5 environments that do not have support for MSE/EME such as Firefox, IE10, or IE11 pre-Windows 8.1.

THEO Player

Figure 3. The compatibility matrix for OpenTelly’s THEOplayer

As shown in Figure 3, OpenTelly’s THEOplayer enjoys a broad compatibility list among browsers and desktop players, though there are some notable exclusions. For example, in Windows, IE support starts with version 10 (1), while Firefox support on the Mac starts with version 35 (2), though since Firefox automatically updates by default, this shouldn’t be a problem. Finally, Firefox support on Linux requires installation of the gstreamer H.264 plug-in.

During the panel, OpenTelly representatives discussed Flemish public broadcaster VRT, which owns three TV channels and five radio stations. Prior to the conversion, VRT relied on Flash for the desktop, plus custom apps for the various stations on the supported mobile platforms, and produced video in HLS, HDS, RTMP, and MP4 formats. After the conversion, VRT was able to deliver HLS content in the browser to all platforms.

Other Players

Other options include dash.js, which is an open source player organized by the DASH Industry Forum, which includes companies such as Akamai, Ericsson, Microsoft, and Qualcomm. The next version of the JW Player, in beta testing now, will support MSE/EME/DASH, and from what we could ascertain from our sources, the feature set appears to be competitive.

Let’s briefly summarize factors to consider when evaluating an off-the-shelf player.

  • Whether you have to transcode your library
  • The number of required output formats
  • The ability to fall back to Flash or Silverlight on unsupported browsers (and whether the player can transmux)
  • Supported DRM technologies
  • Breadth of support for browsers, mobile platforms, OTT boxes and appliances, and SmartTVs, whether direct or via SDKs
  • Support for advertising insertion and other required features

We’ve covered how to convert to HTML5; now let’s look at the when.

When to Make the Move

When preparing for a webinar that I produced in March 2015, I asked a network of colleagues their thoughts on when to make the move to MSE/EME and associated issues. The group included executives from Akamai, AllDigital, Brightcove, BuyDRM, JW Player, Kaltura, the RealEyes consultancy, Wowza, and a movie distributor and major network exec who preferred to remain anonymous. The questions and responses are shown in Figure 4. Note that not all execs answered all questions.

MSE/EME

Figure 4. Survey responses regarding implementation timing for MSE/EME 

The first question was when you would use MSE for a new project that didn’t involve DRM. Five of 10 said immediately, and eight of 10 said yes for any project started in 2015. Adding DRM to the equation pushed the implementation time back, though six of nine still recommended using MSE/EME on any new project started in 2015.

The group was more bullish regarding Android projects, even those including DRM, with eight of nine recommending using MSE/EME for projects started in 2015. This reflects Android’s spotty support for HLS, which simply makes DASH a better solution, at least when Chrome is the default browser.

I next asked when the respondents would stop planning for Flash fallback, which nine of 10 pushed to 2016 or later. The group was very pessimistic on iOS support for MSE/EME, with nine of 10 predicting 2017 or never.

COMPANY-SPECIFIC INDICATORS

Beyond this general data, I also spoke with several other sources, including consultant Jeff Tapper, from Digital Primates, and Barry Hartman, Ooyla’s product director for live and VOD video publishing, playback, and DRM. Tapper pointed out that current Silverlight users were motivated to switch to the MSE/EME by Google’s decision to remove Silverlight support from Chrome, and because Smooth Streaming content required minimal conversion. “The compressed audio/ video packets are the same,” Tapper says, “you just need to modify the manifest files, which is relatively simple.”

Tapper says he had several clients working on MSE/EME-based players, primarily because they wanted a single platform that would serve all their targets. He also noted that some larger clients were concerned that future browser releases would increasingly deprecate plug-ins such as Flash and wanted to start working toward this eventuality.

Ooyala’s Hartman says that within the Ooyala environment, few customers were pushing for MSE/EME/DASH support for general-purpose use. “DASH is just another format,” Hartman says, “why start encoding into DASH before you absolutely have to?” On the other hand, he noted that customers seeking playback on Smart TVs, particularly overseas, were increasingly looking at DASH.

Among the execs that I consulted, there were several other significant caveats, particularly around advertising support. Tim Napoleon, cofounder and chief strategist at AllDigital, says “[30 percent or more] of ad inventory from third-party networks is still VPAID/SWF, so for desktop ads will keep it Flash-based for next 24 months.”

Michael Dale, director, product management at Kaltura, agrees: “There are significant ecosystem dampers, such as desktop ad inventory, still being populated in Flash VPAID.”

Sadly, ad blocking has become a concern for all video distributors, with techniques such as server-side ad insertion becoming a popular anti-ad blocking strategy. While this shouldn’t be affected by the switch from Flash to HTML5, make sure whichever anti-ad blocking strategy you intend to deploy is supported in your new player.

Finally, companies migrating to MSE/EME should make sure they can duplicate the features of their existing Flash or Silverlight applications in HTML5. As an example, Panopto, a knowledge-sharing platform, previously used Silverlight and was forced to migrate when Google dropped Silverlight support in Chrome. After considering HTML5, Panopto chose Flash instead.

“We had to change platforms, and were excited about working with HTML5/DASH,” Panopto CEO Eric Burns says. “Unfortunately, we quickly found a number of implementation gotchas and inconsistent support across browsers and platforms. So we took a step back and asked, ‘What technology will keep us in business?’ We chose the one with the least technological risk.”

Application

When should you make the move? Clearly, if your playback is Silverlight-based, you probably already have, at least for Chrome. However, if you’re continuing to invest in Flash-based playback, it’s time to start thinking about the transition to HTML5, because you’re investing in a dying platform, unless you intend to extend it via PrimeTime. Obviously, your analysis should include when you can duplicate the required features of your application on HTML5, and whether ancillary aspects, such as advertising insertion, are supported.

While MSE/EME/DASH get all the headlines, remember that it’s not the only solution in town; OpenTelly’s HLS-based THEOplayer is another viable option. If converting to MSE/EME/DASH, it will likely be a platform-by-platform campaign, with Chrome and Android the low-hanging fruit. Remember that there are a number of third-party off-the-shelf players that can simplify and accelerate the conversion.

Check your own playback logs to determine the predominant playback platforms used by your viewers. Companies serving larger corporations and government viewers may find a predominance of older IE versions, mitigating against the need for a fast transition. If your viewers are predominantly using newer versions of Chrome, it could be closer to go time than you might think.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “HTML5 Comes of Age.”

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