Don’t Expect HTML5 to Overtake Flash Anytime Soon

YouTube made a bit of noise yesterday with the introduction of a new video player that uses HTML5 standard, which (in theory) could enable browsers to render video without an installed plugin like Adobe’s Flash player. With the largest Flash video site in the universe now playing around with an open standard, one might think that the end is nigh for the video plugin. But the inherent limitations of YouTube’s implementation just go to show why HTML5 won’t reach mainstream adoption anytime soon.

For one thing, there’s the question of ubiquity. Due to standards issues, not all browsers support YouTube’s HTML5 videos. Users could only test the player out if they were using Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer with Google’s ChromeFrame installed, because its HTML5 videos are encoded using H.264, which isn’t supported by Firefox and Opera. Standards around things like video codecs are slow to develop, and until they do, so an HTML5-only YouTube probably won’t be viable across all browsers anytime soon.

Despite requiring a plugin, Adobe Flash is the leading technology for web video today, with more than 75 percent of all worldwide streams, including YouTube’s. That’s because the Flash client is installed in some 98 percent of Internet-connected computers, and is also supported by a wide variety of mobile devices. As Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch said at NewTeeVee Live, HTML5 “is trying to do what Flash already does today.” So if YouTube were to move to HTML5, it would actually reduce the number of users that would be able to access its videos, whether they needed a plugin or not.

More importantly, the vast majority of web video advertising is created with Flash in mind, and this is apparent with YouTube’s HTML5 testing ground. Videos that the company monetizes are not viewable through HTML5, for the basic reason that there aren’t any ads available to show. With the video ad market just now starting to take off, and the vast majority of those ads being created in Flash, it will be difficult for a video publisher to transition to another format without seriously hurting potential ad revenues.

It’s still early days for HTML5, but despite YouTube’s dabbling there probably won’t be any large-scale implementations of video sites adopting it anytime soon. Without a critical mass of users that are actually able to view the videos, or advertisers to support them, there’s little reason for them to do so.

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