Commoditizing embedded video: the HTML5 video tag

Surfin’ Safari notes initial support for the HTML5 <video> and <audio> tags in their latest nightly builds.

Indeed, if you have a browser that supports the video tag, then you (hopefully) can see an autoplaying video here:

There’s been a little bit of controversy over the fact that calls for inclusion of the Ogg formats have been removed in more recent versions of the spec. Section, “Video and audio codecs for video elements”, currently reads:

It would be helpful for interoperability if all browsers could support the same codecs. However, there are no known codecs that satisfy all the current players: we need a codec that is known to not require per-unit or per-distributor licensing, that is compatible with the open source development model, that is of sufficient quality as to be usable, and that is not an additional submarine patent risk for large companies. This is an ongoing issue and this section will be updated once more information is available.

That more or less matches my take on Ogg, which is that it poses an unknown patent liability risk: the /. mob insists it’s patent-free, but how the hell do they know? They don’t; they just want it to be so, because it suits their worldview. And Ogg may indeed be patent-free, but I don’t think anybody knows for sure, and even so, proving it would be expensive. To top it all off, Ogg just isn’t that popular or useful outside the warm bubble of Linux zealotry.

Still, there’s a huge need for at least one video and audio codec to be available more less everywhere, or at least for one class of devices: i.e., one codec you can expect all desktops to have, one for all phones, etc. To just dump out to “whatever QuickTime supports on the Mac, whatever Windows Media supports on Windows, etc.” ends up moving the problem, either to the web author (who has to sniff the OS from the user-agent and write the tag on the fly… to say nothing of hosting multiple encodings of every clip) or to the end-user.

It’s funny, because while the HTML5 <video> tag should displace Flash as the only practical option for web video — something that’s become screamingly obvious in the two years or so since YouTube launched — it might not, if it gets tangled up in codec hassles. The remarkable thing about Flash Video isn’t that it’s good (it’s not), but that it’s consistent and available on all Flash-enabled desktops.

That’s turned out to be a much bigger deal than the quality of competitors like H.264 and WMV, or the fact that other approaches could support many more codecs. Flash doesn’t try to support every codec under the sun, or even offer extension points for third parties to do so, but it doesn’t matter — with a known-viable video codec, content providers can just push their content with the package-deal of FLV and the Flash plug-in. Sure, the QuickTime plugin, a QuickTime for Java applet (or even a JMF applet, fercryinoutloud) could support more formats and codecs than Flash, but the typical use is not a general-purpose “play arbitrary content” application; the web-embedded player is usually meant to play the content from a single content provider, who’s perfectly happy to use a single, sub-optimal format, if the alternative is having to encode everything a dozen ways from Sunday to support the various OSes and devices.

Which makes me think that Flash’s ubiquity as a web-embedded video player won’t be threatened by HTML5, so long as there is neither a de jure nor de facto ubiquitous video codec for HTML5. Ironically, while H.264 might be the best candidate for that, Flash is already supporting it too.

Which leads me to an idea: if you were writing a browser on a platform without H.264 support from the native multimedia library, but you had Flash available, could you just pull the Flash player into service on the fly and have it play the H.264?

Comments (2)

  1. the /. mob insists it’s patent-free, but how the hell do they know

    I think this is a bit of a misstatement. Ogg is not “patent free”. Ogg is based on the VC3 codec, developed by On2 Technologies, who owns the patents on the codec. However, On2 provided a patent escrow deal to allowing Open Source implementations on a royalty free basis. Xiph then distributes the code for Ogg V/T. Given that On2 licenses VC3, among other codecs, to a wide array of companies, I think it is safe to say it has been vetted.

  2. […] enough anymore to have a playback-only API, at least on the desktop, for the simple reason that HTML5 and the <video> tag commoditizes video playback. On JavaPosse #217, the guys were impressed by a blog claiming that a JavaFX media player had been […]

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