Online video wars

The next big evolution of the Internet will be in the realm of video playing. Until now the rapid growth of online video has been built on Adobe’s Flash technology. Flash has always been a workable solution but not the best platform because it requires an additional plugin to be installed before users can view video.

Now, however, the focus is shifting away from Flash and towards HTML5 which has the ability to play video natively in web browsers without the need for a plugin.

Technically HTML5 doesn’t actually play the video content, it merely has a tag that makes it possible to embed video tags in a web page. To actually play the video it relies on a video codec being built into the browser. And this is where the battle is going to be the fiercest in the coming years.

No Flash in the iPad

Apple’s Steve Jobs has made it very clear that he has no intention of supporting Flash in future Apple products. In a public letter last week Jobs said that Apple would not be including Flash support in the iPhone and iPad because the technology was not “open” enough. He wrote: “Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing … By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.”

Instead, he said, Apple would be building its Internet-connected devices with support for open standards such as HTML5, CSS and JavaScript. He also said that in place of Flash Apple would be including support for the “more modern format” H.264 codec.

Right now there are two primary options for playing video online using HTML5 technologies: H.264 and Theora and this is where the battle over standards will be played out.

H.264

Apple and Microsoft have both thrown their weight behind H.264. Jobs in his open letter said as much and Microsoft has said that Internet Explorer 9 will only support H.264 video playback.

Microsoft’s Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for Internet Explorer, says that H.264 is “an industry standard, with broad and strong hardware support”. Jobs says that H.264 is a “more modern format” than Flash.

H.264, however, is a heavily patented and proprietary video codec, despite the impression of “openness” that Jobs tries to portray in his open letter. HTML5 is an open standard but H.264 is far from it with hefty associated licensing fees attached to its use. 

Microsoft and Apple are both licensors of the H.264 standard which means that they stand to make money from licensing fees if H.264 is widely adopted.

Theora

There is an alternative to H.264: Theora. Theora is a free and open video standard that can be used for distributing and playing video online. Theora is maintained by the Xiph.org Foundation and is free to use without needing to pay for licence fees.

Opera and the Mozilla Foundation, backers of the Firefox web browser, are both supporting Theora, which puts them on the other side of the fence from Apple and Microsoft.

Even though the MPEG licensing authority has said that licences for H.264 will be free until 2015 both Opera and Mozilla have said that they don’t believe supporting H.264 is a good decision in the long run. In personal blogs some Opera employees have said that the “hostile” licensing conditions of H.264 are too restrictive to make it a good decision for long-term use.

Mozilla developers have expressed similar thoughts saying that H.264 is not compatible with the ideals of free software.

Future

With Microsoft and Apple both backing H.264, and Google’s Chrome supporting both H.264 and Theora, the chances of Theora emerging triumphant in this battle appear to be fairly slim. Neither Opera nor Firefox alone have enough of market share to swing the market.

On the other hand, Flash’s time is far from over. So much of the Internet as it currently exists relies on Flash that Apple is going to be hard-pressed to simply switch Flash off. Users will continue to use Flash to play games and view videos, whether Apple likes it or not.

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Online video wars