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The Future of Web Video, Part 1

Feb 16, 2010 12:00 PM, By Jan Ozer

HTML5? Someday. Ogg? Probably not.

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What about Flash?

Interesting question. At this point, any website owner would have to be certifiable to jump exclusively to HTML5 without fallback to Flash, since if they continued to use H.264 video, they would lose 86 percent of their viewers. Ogg support via the video tag would return 24 percent of the potential eyeballs, but there are issues there that I discuss below.

So why consider an alternative to Flash? One issue is lack of Flash support in the Apple iPad. To me, the iPad seems like a glittery solution in search of a problem, but I thought the original iPod was a technological me-to with white earbuds and an unworkable flywheel. Go figure. If the iPad takes off, it will force many publishers to find a solution that works with both HTML5 and Flash.

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Other issues to consider using a Flash workaround include the nominal reasons that Apple declined to support Flash in the iPad. As Trevor Boyer recently reported, in making this decision, "CEO Steve Jobs complained to his employees about Flash performance and blamed it for causing Apple products to crash."

Crashing is very hard to quantify, and in a response to the iPad announcement, Adobe's CTO, Kevin Lynch wrote:

"Regarding crashing, I can tell you that we don't ship Flash with any known crash bugs, and if there was such a widespread problem historically, Flash could not have achieved its wide use today. We work directly with the major browser teams—including Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft IE, and Google Chrome—and review any emerging issues so we can resolve them together. Before we release a new version of Flash Player, we run more than 100,000 test cases and have built an automated system that has scanned over 1 million SWFs that we use for testing from across the Web. Our QA lab has a very large variety of machines to represent the machines in real use on the Web."

In my opinion, Flash is too widely used to have a laundry list of fatal bugs, but that's just an opinion. I don't think the sky is falling because Flash is unstable, but if you do, HTML5 lets you avoid the problem—but only on the browsers that support it and your selected codec, of course.

On the other hand, performance is objective, and it turns out that Mr. Jobs had plenty to complain about there. In the same post, Lynch addressed the performance issue, stating:

"Video rendering is an area we are focusing more attention on—for example, today a 480p video on a 1.8GHz Mac Mini in Safari uses about 34 percent of CPU on Mac versus 16 percent on Windows (running in BootCamp on same hardware). With Flash Player 10.1, we are optimizing video rendering further on the Mac and expect to reduce CPU usage by half, bringing Mac and Windows closer to parity for video."

I haven't run these tests, but I'm sure lots of folks will when Flash 10.1 is released. Once the YouTube and Vimeo HTML5 sites go final, it will also be interesting to see how playback efficiency varies between the Flash versions of each site and Chrome and Safari decoding with their native H.264 codecs.

OK, that's it for now. If you decide to support HTML5, you have to choose a codec, and we'll return to discuss that in two weeks.

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