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Navigating HTML5 Video

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HTML5 has quickly transitioned from an ad hoc standards process into a widely adopted and highly visible platform for delivering rich media web experiences. We will look at key developments that shaped the HTML5 platform and how HTML5 is playing an increasingly critical role in organizations' online media presence. We will also highlight many practical and technical resources to help navigate HTML5 video for use in your organization or software platform. And finally, we look at what developments we can expect in 2011.

HTML5, a Short History: Before Steve Jobs

Much has been said about Steve Jobs' "crusade" against Adobe as the primary mover of an entire online video industry toward reluctantly supporting a non-Flash platform. In fact, the shift is part of a much broader industry transition toward commoditization of core web technologies that started before Jobs became one of its biggest advocates.

To understand the rapid adoption of HTML5, it's good to brush up on its history. Mark Pilgrim's book Dive Into HTML5 offers some great insight. To summarize, in 2004 at the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) workshop on Web Applications and Compound Documents, Mozilla and Opera jointly outlined their vision for future extension of HTML. The meeting established that the W3C was not going to put any resources into extending HTML.

As a consequence, a separate organization, WHATWG, with a competing vision for the future of extending HTML was formed. This separate organization offered greater flexibility and an open process that was more agreeable to innovative evolution of the web application platform.

Among many other extensions to HTML, the video tag was proposed as part of the WHATWG efforts. Opera was the first browser to ship experimental video tag support in November 2007. As HTML5 began to gain interest from the industry, the issue of a standard codec for the video tag became a highly contentious issue in the standard process. Another W3C Workshop, Video on the Web, took place in December 2007. There, open web video advocates argued that the HTML5 spec should specify a royalty-free baseline codec. Ultimately, all the involved parties could not agree on a single codec, so the HTML5 spec ended up being codec-agnostic. (More detail about codecs can be found in the practical guides included in this article.)

In mid 2008, Kaltura-together with the Mozilla Foundation, Yale Information Society Project, and Participatory Culture Foundation-founded the Open Video Alliance, which helps promote open standards for online video. The alliance hosts the annual Open Video Conference. Around this time, Kaltura also began working on a project to develop open collaborative video tools for Wikipedia based on the emerging HTML5 video specification.

HTML5 Takes Off

In January 2010, YouTube began to support an HTML5 video player, as by this time all the major browsers except Internet Explorer were shipping HTML5 video support.

In May 2010, Google announced the WebM project with the aim of gaining industry support for a royalty-free codec for the HTML5 standard.

In April 2010, Steve Jobs published his thoughts on Flash in an open letter, which served as a clear industry marker that supporting HTML5 was going to be critical for reaching the hugely popular iOS devices and, probably more than any other event, triggered industrywide uptake.

Around the same time, Microsoft expressed its commitment to the HTML5 platform. A Microsoft general manager later went on to say, "The future of the web is HTML5."

As a result, video platform providers reacted. Soon, many video platforms and video sharing sites began to flesh out their HTML5 support options.

Kaltura launched Html5video.org, an industry resource for HTML5 video-related information and home of Kaltura's open source collaboration with Wikimedia and Mozilla that delivers a robust, high-quality HTML5 library. Finally, in late 2010, Adobe announced its entrance into the HTML5 playing field with its HTML5 Video Player widget based on Kaltura's HTML5 library.

What did all these developments mean in terms of real-world adoption? In January 2010, the percentage of online video that was available via HTML5 was about 10%. By October of the same year, 54% of online video was available in HTML5, according to a report by MeFeedia. In 2011, HTML5 adoption will be even more pervasive.

HTML5 and Flash

One way of understanding the HTML5 platform is in terms of differentiation from the Flash Platform. Here are some of the major differences between the two:

  • • Single vendor vs. many vendors-Within the Flash Platform, a single vendor (Adobe) controls the platform. With HTML5, many different browser makers (Apple, Google, Mozilla, Opera, Microsoft, and more) support the standard to varying degrees across numerous desktop browser versions. Each company also has a mobile version(s) of its browser along with other mobile vendors (BlackBerry, Palm, Nokia) with various software versions across devices and mobile network carriers; this makes for a huge compatibility matrix. On the one hand, HTML5 makes for a complex platform, but on the other hand, it contributes to a fast pace of innovation with interest and investment from a wide range of powerful forces in the industry.
  • • No DRM-Unlike with Flash or other media platforms, there are no cross-browser DRM solutions. There are tricks that make copying content slightly more difficult. But in general, HTML5 is not presently very good for restricted rights content. This is expected to improve during 2011 and into the future.
  • • No fine-grain network controls-Currently, it's difficult to do network management on the client, and there is no cross-browser adaptive streaming solution. (Apple iOS devices do support Apple's HTTP Live Streaming.) 
  • • Integrated solutions for advertising not as widely supported as in Flash-This is another area that is expected to greatly improve in 2011.
  • • Generally not as easy to plug and play third-party components with player frameworks-There is no top-down OSMF (Adobe's Open Source Media Framework) that makes it easy to adapt plug-ins to players. 
  • It's important to note that even given the above limitations, HTML5 has some advantages:
  • • Combined with faster JavaScript engines, CSS3, and other features of modem browsers, rich interfaces can be built around HTML5 and can be leveraged across numerous platforms and devices.
  • • Numerous open source JavaScript libraries have emerged to help bridge gaps in HTML5 implementations.
  • • Forward-thinking content distribution companies such as Netflix have already started adopting HTML5 for their user interfaces and working to address the limitations of the video tag for distribution of their media content. 
  • • HTML5 is here to stay and continues to build huge industry momentum. It's hard to find an active browser vendor or mobile software platform that is not going to support HTML5.

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