Online video viewing is limited by the fact that browsers don’t natively support it, which forces would-be viewers to download proprietary plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight. Though it’s not like we users are twiddling our thumbs waiting for video support; at this point, nearly all of the world’s online computers have one or more such plug-ins installed.
Sooner than later, however, we won’t have to download a thing, as browsers themselves will enable native video play. And as the pieces fall into place for open video, the experience of streaming video online will improve across the board.
There are two main technology components to the emerging category of open video, a topic that for the first time ever had a whole conference devoted to it last week in New York. The first is how browsers handle video. But that, in turn, is dependent on the development and adoption of open video formats for browsers to support. Though H.264 is building momentum as the dominant high-quality video codec, it, like other codecs, still requires licensing fees. An open and royalty-free video codec would be more broadly accessible.
Browser support for such a format expands the possibilities for interacting with video on a page — for example, playing a video in the background; adding and manipulating objects within videos; and overlaying intelligence onto a video, such as facial recognition. That kind of stuff is possible in Flash today, sometimes with an additional plug-in, but in practice it’s separate from the rest of the non-Flash web page.
Browser makers at Mozilla (Firefox), Apple (Safari), Google (Chrome) and Opera (Opera) are with their newest versions supporting the upcoming HTML 5, a major revision to the core language of the web. Within HTML 5, it’s as simple to include a video on a page as an image; just include the element <video>. However, a major roadblock is that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which still has 65 percent market share, hasn’t signed on to completely support HTML 5, and has publicly challenged the viability of open video efforts while championing its own horse in the race, the proprietary Silverlight.
But even if browsers can agree on HTML 5, so far there’s no consensus on what the leading open video codec will be. Firefox has thrown its weight and $100,000 in funding towards the OGG container format and Theora video encoding, and is also working to adapt OGG for mobile hardware (where Flash, for instance, has had issues getting on devices like the iPhone). While it’s not clear that there’s another codec contender, not many people think Theora is good enough to compete yet.
If you thought Flash vs. Silverlight was bad, get ready for the open video claws to come out. “We hope that by releasing video from the plugin prison and letting it play nice with others we’ll be able to open up a new wave of creativity around video,” was the way Mozilla evangelist Chris Blizzard put it in a blog post. “HTML 5 is still a standard in progress and the makers of it say it will be five to ten years at least before it’s done, so it’s too early to make any comparisons at this time,” a Microsoft spokesperson told ComputerWorld. Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox, compared H.264 to the I.E.’s problematic ActiveX in a recent interview, because it’s opaque to developers and patented.
However, we’re talking about a battle whose date hasn’t even been set yet. HTML 5 is only on the brink of arrival, and simply making it available doesn’t make it dominant. Proprietary video players and formats are still a step ahead in terms of quality and functionality, and the market already develops for and uses them.
But now that the technology is starting to be available, video hosts can start using it — which means market adoption is kicking off right alongside development. French video site Dailymotion‘s forward-thinking tech team last month re-encoded 300,000 videos in Ogg Theora and Vorbis audio. Prospective viewers don’t have to download Flash, but they do have to download the pre-release beta of the new Firefox 3.5. Dailymotion admits that the open videos are lower quality and “crackly,” but says it ultimately expects to improve user experience, SEO and advertising. If you have Firefox 3.5, check out the demo page here.
Will other sites follow suit? So far, there are smaller OGG libraries at TinyVid.tv and Wikimedia. Beltzner pointed out that if the gigantic video site YouTube can re-encode its library for iPhone playback, it can build out OGG as well. And indeed, Google is one of the key advocates for HTML 5, so this is not at the back of people’s minds. Google demonstrated YouTube mocked up in HTML 5 at a recent developers’ conference, however Kuan Yong, product manager for YouTube platforms, said at a press briefing soon after that issues like secure streaming needed to be worked out before the site would consider adoption.
A day when YouTube stops using Flash would be hard to imagine, but it may indeed be coming. In the meantime, increased competition is driving Adobe to be more open and more innovative. It could soon be a close parallel to what’s happening with browsers themselves, in which open-source development from Firefox and new entrants like Chrome have driven a dramatic increase in the pace of innovation for all browsers in the last couple years.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.