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Enough About HTML5 Video Already!

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I was speaking recently with a new consulting client from the U.K. It was a typical job: The client was starting a video-centric instructional site and wanted help configuring his H.264 presets. We chatted for a bit, and then he told me that the folks building the site recommended an HTML5 player with Flash fallback. I responded, “That’s like teaching your kids German first and then English, just in case the kid they meet at lunch doesn’t speak German.”

He asked what I meant and I explained. Only about half of all browsers are HTML5-compatible at this point, and the largest share—Firefox and soon Chrome—don’t or won’t play H.264 video. In fact, only about 10% of all browsers (Internet Explorer 9 and Safari) will play H.264 in the short term to midterm. So your primary player will address about 10% of the users, while your fall-back player will address the other 90%.

Of course, I continued, you could double the encoding work, double your storage requirements, and double my fee by producing in WebM as well, but that wouldn’t increase your reach or coverage over Flash, and you couldn’t protect your videos via digital rights management (DRM) because there isn’t any for HTML5 video.

“Why do HTML5 first?” he asked.

“That’s what I want to know,” I responded.

Taking a step back, there are four rough categories of websites using video. The largest group of sites is the simple video in a window, where the video is probably not mission-critical but is there because the marketing staff said they needed video on their websites. In this application, using the HTML5 video tag might make sense if it didn’t double your encoding/storage/consulting chores to support both WebM and H.264. And make no mistake, since the video has to play on iOS devices, you must support H.264.

The next level includes those who want adaptive streaming both to the desktop and to mobile devices. Here, HTML5 doesn’t work because there is no adaptive streaming supported in a single codec over all HTML5 browsers and because HTML5 is still at only 50% penetration.

The next level represents my new client, who wants adaptive streaming plus DRM to both the desktop and mobile devices. Again, HTML5 doesn’t offer adaptive streaming or DRM, so it’s not a viable solution.

The final level, representing the fewest users but the vast majority of non-UGC streams, includes your premium content owners and distributors. They not only want adaptive and DRM, they want support for TV Everywhere, which isn’t even close to viable via HTML5. Also in this category are large corporate streamers who need adaptive and DRM, plus efficient distribution within the enterprise via multicast and peer-to-peer. Again, HTML5 is nowhere close.

With regards to the video tag, never has an industry worked so hard to promote a technology that clearly only appeals to either tree-hugging, sandal-wearing standards lovers or the absolute lowest tier of potential users. And all for only twice the cost of competitive technologies. Supporting HTML5 first isn’t a proud badge to wear, like thinking green; it’s an admission that your video isn’t mission-critical and that your needs are primitive from a features perspective. Nothing wrong with that—we can’t all be ESPN— but cripes, why do we promote HTML5 video like it was apple pie and renewable energy all rolled up into one?

In my view, the HTML5 committee should stop promoting the fiction that the video tag will someday actually be useful to a relevant group of target users. It should start focusing on standards that it can and should control, where proprietary technologies aren’t obviously more effective. Clearly, the web needs the good work these committees do, but just as clearly, not in the video delivery space. 

This article first ran in the October/November 2011 issue of Streaming Media.

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