HTML5 vs. Flash (à la VHS vs Betamax)
By Stephen Gray on Thursday 08 July 2010 Tweet this!
Much heated debate has occurred recently between some of the largest and most powerful companies on Earth. The uninitiated would be forgiven for thinking of Apple, YouTube, Microsoft and Adobe as akin to a band of 6-year-olds fighting over the last conker on the tree. The topic causing so much upset is one more loaded than religion combined with politics then liberally sprinkled with football. Video. To many this battle of the giants seemed inevitable, after all when video lived on tapes VHS famously took on Betamax. Then, when video finally became digital and migrated to optical disc, HD-DVD was firmly whupped by Blu-ray. Given this precedent, the media-less age of video was never going to be ushered in peacefully.
To recap on events so far: in the blue corner is Adobe, who own the technology known as Flash (they also manufacture Creative Suite products such as Photoshop). Flash can be found everywhere and is used for many different purposes but most notably interactive games and the encoding of video, but perhaps most famously on YouTube. Flash isn't perfect and has proved a real headache for mobile devices, which generally have to resort to software decoding in order to get it to play (on paper though, Flash should be well suited to mobile devices as bandwidth can be 'down sized' on the fly). In practice, Flash is invariably decoded in software, using more precious battery power than hardware decoding. Adobe realises Flash's current limitations and (depending on your point of view) have been attempting to either: a) open up the technology to third party developers who wish to create innovative new applications which will run smoothly and without issue on popular mobile (and non-mobile) devices or b) flog a dead horse.
And in the red corner is Apple. Apple have embarked on what has been called an 'anti-Flash mission', abandoning support on current and future Apple products including the beautiful (if by now slightly greasy) iPad. Apple have either been: a) inspiring a generation by offering access to media which is rock steady and makes the most of (their) up-to-the-minute hardware by supporting 'open' HTML5 video techniques, or b) denying access to vast parts of the internet (and users' own media collections) by dictating what can and can't be watched while suppressing dissent with an iron fist, each knuckle emblazoned with a little white apple.
This move to open source tools seems noble enough (and to some quite unApple-like) and promises the holy grail of on-line video delivery: a format that plays well on any platform and any device, which allows searching, tagging and embedding and does all this without the need to install a third-party plug-in.
Apple's case is weakened somewhat by the fact that much of the actual video content accessed via HTML5 is frequently of a flavour known as H.264. The news that H.264 is an 'open' standard would come as quite a shock to MPEGLA who administers the licenses for H.264 related patents. To ease worries, truly open source video encoding-decoding technology is being championed by the WebM project. Google have assisted by donating to WebM their VP8 video technology. Still with me? Good. So Apple are all set to embrace HTML5 and truly open source video delivery on their mobile platforms yes? No. The only phone platform set to be WebM enabled in 2010 is Google's Android - a direct competitor to the iPhone.
The clashing of titans such as Apple and Adobe was never going to be a quiet affair, but the public-nature of the debate has shocked many. See Steve (Apple) Job's Thoughts on Flash and the retaliatory Washington Post ads. Since then YouTube has attempted to broker a truce while Microsoft has poured oil on the flames by announcing Internet Explorer will also be only supporting HTML video technologies (H.264) and not Flash.
As I write Apple seems to have Adobe on the ropes, cheered on (who could have guessed it?) by Microsoft. But this could all change over night. Let's hope whatever happens that we as end-users do end up with invisible and seamless access to video. We'll be blogging again with significant updates, meanwhile watch this space.
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