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The Next Stage of Online Video Evolution

HTML5 is changing the look of Web video, but can it edge out Flash?

At the end of August, the band Arcade Fire launched an online experiment with Google that allowed fans to build a personalized music video to accompany the new song “We Used to Wait.” But the video was more than a normal video: it was a collection of video windows within the Web browser that provided, among other images, aerial and street-level footage of any address a user provided (via Google Maps).

Flash in the hand: Skyfire has developed a mobile browser that converts Flash videos to HTML5 videos, making them viewable on devices aren’t compatible with Flash.

This sort of functionality would be impossible to offer using most online video players–pieces of software that run via a separate browser plug-in–like Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight. But the Arcade Fire video ran directly from the browser and was built with the emerging Web programming language HTML5.

Although the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which governs new Web standards, has yet to sign off on all of the possible features of HTML5 video, a number of websites are charging ahead with the technology. CNN and The Onion, for instance, have used it to build out their video libraries, in part because it offers new design options. “The technology is far more expressive,” says Ben Galbraith, director of developer relations at mobile computing company Palm. “It frees up graphic designers and potentially unlocks developers.”

The fact that Apple’s iPhone, iPod, and iPad products don’t run Flash-based videos is also pressuring media companies to look to HTML5 as a way to reach as large an audience as possible.

Currently, however, online video is going through an awkward stage. While HTML5 promises to give programmers more flexibility in the way they present videos, and allow these videos to play on Apple devices, the new Web standard lacks some features of Flash. In addition, there are already millions of videos, including much of YouTube, that can only be played using Flash. And Flash has been around for years, so many developers already know how to incorporate Flash-based videos into websites.

But there’s been a flurry of activity to get HTML5 up to speed. Recently, a company called Skyfire announced that it had developed (and submitted for approval to Apple’s app store) a mobile Web browser that converts Flash-based video to HTML5 so an iPhone user can watch it. Another company, Sublime Video, launched a player that allows programmers to reproduce the features provided by Flash video using HTML5.

However, Bruce Lawson, Web evangelist at browser maker Opera, says it’s not clear that such a takeover is wanted or needed. Flash works across all Web browsers, and programmers only need to write the code for the video once, instead of tailoring it to the capabilities of different browsers, he notes.

In addition, says Lawson, Flash is much better at letting developers use digital rights management software to keep the videos from being downloaded and distributed without permission. “If you’re a company showing video on the Web, and it’s important to you that that video can’t be downloaded, captured, or distributed, then Flash is the tool to use,” he says. So far, Lawson adds, he knows of no plans to extend similar digital protection capabilities to HTML5 video.

One feature that Sublime Video is trying to give HTML5 video is a full-screen mode–the absence of which is a glaring difference between HTML5 and Flash. But Michael Smith, who helps develop the standards for W3C, says there are serious security issues involved in allowing video within a browser to be full screen. For instance, a malicious hacker could provide a link that seems familiar and safe, but that takes a user to a full-screen video that mimics her desktop and a fake bank log-in designed to capture credentials. “For security reasons, you need to keep users aware of the fact that they’re watching a video,” Smith says. The group is working to develop a design that enables a full-screen mode while still being secure, he says.

Another feature that’s not yet fully fleshed out in HTML5 is closed captioning and subtitles via synchronized time pegs. This is available with Flash, although Opera’s Lawson notes that it’s still difficult to get text data out of a Flash player and make it useful for something like search.

Smith stresses that HTML5 is not being developed to replace Flash, and it’s not a matter of matching the technology feature for feature. “It’s not about replacing perfectly good, working technologies,” Smith says. “What we’re trying to do is provide choices.”

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