HTML5 Video, not HTML5-format Video…

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about HTML5 Video, and my biggest gripe is that people are referring to it as if it’s a format. Let’s get that straightened out right now. There is no such thing as an HTML5 Video. There is such a thing as an HTML5 compliant browser playing back video using the <video> element instead of Flash, Windows Media Player or QuickTime. Now that the misunderstanding is all cleared up, let’s move on to the considerations you might make as a content distributor or an end user.

Why Does (almost) Everyone Use Flash to Serve Video?

It’s YouTube’s fault really. Before YouTube became the leviathan it now is, people used QuickTime, Windows Media Player and even Real Player to distribute videos online. This was imperfect as in those days, most Windows users didn’t have QuickTime, most Mac users didn’t have Windows Media Player, and everyone hated Real Player. Although YouTube was not the first to use Flash as a video player, they definitely popularized it.

Using a Flash player allows you to design your own player controls and features, interrupt the video with ads, and attempt to mask the source video file, making it difficult for viewers to download the video and share it with their friends; the full-screen viewing option was also a perk of using Flash as a video player.

In the days of an Internet that was free of ad supported videos, crowded with dial-up modems, and accompanied by Zip Disks, it was a great thing for people to be able to download your video and share it with their friends. Today things have changed.

Sites like YouTube, Hulu,, and others depend on Flash as a mechanism to serve pre-roll ads and insert commercial breaks into the videos/television shows you watch; they love Flash. It’s important to note that some clever individuals have devised ways to download YouTube videos, so you can watch them on your desktop without a browser or Flash. One recent implementation is to change the y in YouTube to a 3 and the site will give you a download link for the video you were watching. These hacks are usually closed by YouTube after they become popular.

Why Does Apple Seem to Hate Flash?

Apple delivers the full web experience on its iPhone and more recently, the iPad. However some argue that Flash is missing from this experience, and are hopeful that Apple will add Flash support to the iPhone OS. Apple has a real conflict of interest here; many users would love to use their iPhone to view Hulu or another TV network’s website, but the issue is that Apple already has a commercial distribution method for TV shows: iTunes. Here’s an example of a company that does not love Flash.

How Does This Affect the End User

For the most part, the end user does not know any better, and with Flash penetration being close to 100% (meaning that most computers have it installed) it remains to be the most reliable way to get a video to your user. If you use a Flash player to serve your video file, chances are that your user will see the video and be able to play it back with no trouble.

Why Do We Even Care About HTML5?

Flash is owned by Adobe, and it’s closed source which means that they control it from beginning to end. HTML is an open standard that previously lacked the ability to play back video files natively, but HTML version 5 aims to change that. Not using flash to embed video will appeal to the purists out there, but it may not even matter to the end users. From a technical standpoint, HTML5’s native <video> element will allow many of the same features as a typical Flash based player, but without the overhead of an additional plug-in and the increased memory use that comes with it. With HTML5 we will be able to create video players that load more quickly, have completely custom controls, and offer better accessibility than Flash players can.

What Browsers Support Native HTML5 Video Playback?

Currently the latest versions of Firefox, Chrome & Safari support HTML5 video playback, however Firefox does not yet support the video formats being used by YouTube in their HTML5 beta note that they don’t show HTML5 videos when the video has ads. Internet Explorer 9 (which is still in a closed beta) is said to have excellent support for HTML5 however it’s not public yet, so only time will tell if the HTML5 support is what we all hope it’ll be.

In summary, HTML5 is the future and videos online are here to stay, but the truth is that Flash has carved out a nice home for itself in the delivery of commercial video content and they like it that way. The content creators are happy about it too! I doubt that end users desiring a purer experience are either plentiful or persuasive enough to change that anytime soon. So if you are a content creator, let your users know that you are aware of HTML5’s native video playback ability, but keep that Flash player for as long as you can, as it practically guarantees your users will see your videos.

It’s also important to remember where Flash came from. Flash excels at creating rich vector animations, interaction with sound, and is backed by a powerful scripting language. Websites like Albino Black Sheep host thousands of Flash-based games that would not be possible without the power of Flash. Today the most common use of Flash is as a video player, but it’s an amazing platform for accomplishing so much more than playing back video files and serving ads.

Related Reading:

Video on the Web:
Vimeo’s HTML5 beta:
YouTube’s HTML5 beta:

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