With the launch of the iPad, and Apple’s effective declaration of war against both Flash and it’s maker, Adobe, a lot of fanboys have been taking pot shots at Abobe and Flash (like a bunch of Steve Jobs mini-me’s!).
I’m no Flash (or Adobe) partisan, I just look at the facts. And the facts are that more video has been made available, and watched, online than ever before, almost all of it in Flash. Just look at the numbers. A lot of the video explosion has happened because of sharing — embedding of videos into our blogs, our Facebook pages, and through sites like the one we run at Vodpod.
In general, I would hope that most people think this has been a good thing. It’s fun to share a video through your blog or Facebook or Twitter or Vodpod; it’s fun to discover a new video through a friend’s Tumblr or Facebook page or Vodpod collection. If you do think it’s a good thing, take a moment to thank the Flash format — it made it all possible.
It’s clear, though, we’re at the beginning of the transition to an HTML5 world. In general, I think this will be a good thing. And in general, I think over time we’ll have as much video sharing through HTML5 as through Flash.
But there will be some hurdles to cross first. And because of what we do at Vodpod, and the fact we talk to almost all of the major video players regularly, I thought it would be good to lay out some of the issues the industry is confronting:
1. Stream Security
The really cool thing in the HTML5 spec is that video is now a tag, just like an image. Awesome. But, you know you can right-click and save an image from a browser? You’ll be able to do that with video, too. Awesome, right? Well, not if you’re someone who doesn’t want your video to be saved and shared. Like Hulu. Or most major media companies. Or filmmakers.
A whole industry has been built around enabling in-stream advertising within Flash players. Few people love sitting through a 30-second commercial before that funny SNL clip; but that advertising is what has enabled so much video to be published online.
Will this happen in HTML5? Yes, but work still has to be done. Flash provides nifty player controls that make it a little easier to program in your in-stream advertising; support for that in HTML5 has to get built out. That will take some time.
Another key thing enabled through the Flash player has been tracking and analytics. Video publishers want to understand how and where their videos are being watched. That’s understandable. Replicating this with HTML5 should be doable; it’ll just take some work. And that will take time, too.
The long-and-short of it is that there is a lot of work to be done before HTML5 video is as easy to share as Flash video is today. There are a lot of press releases out there being bandied about, talking about how folks are ready for HTML5. But dig a little, and you’ll find there are lots of holes.
One of the smartest things I’ve heard in a while about all this was at a SXSW panel on HTML5 video led by Christopher Blizzard, head of developer relations at Mozilla (UPDATE — I should have also linked to this excellent post from Blizzard on the thorny format issues still to be resolved). He fielded a flurry of questions about some of these practical issues I’ve noted above and said (I’ll paraphrase here, and Christopher can correct me if I’ve got the paraphrase wrong) “People should look at HTML5 video as something new, and we’re excited or the new things people will do with it. Don’t look at HTML5 video as a replacement for something that you’re already doing with video on the web.”
And indeed, Firefox walks this talk; it will support both HTML5 video and Flash. It lets developers and consumers and video publishers decide which formats fit their needs. Isn’t that the way it should be?
That the transition from Flash to HTML5 will ultimately happen I have little doubt. The big players are moving now. It just won’t happen overnight. And it may be a long time before you see video sharing enabled by major media companies in anything other than the Flash format.
The folks for whom this transition is hardest are all those video publishers out on the long tail. Sites like TeacherTube, fora.tv and Pitchfork.tv. Those are the folks caught in the crossfire of this Adobe-Apple war. Flash — and a whole set of businesses and industries built to support it — has made it easy and simple to get videos published online, with advertising support if needed, and made shareable. Time, energy and resources will have to be expended to replicate all that in HTML5.
Apple could have acted like Mozilla. They could have provided robust support for and encouragement to adopt and use HTML5, but also included some support in the browser at least for the Flash plugin. That would have allowed all of us — consumers, publishers, developers — a say in which format worked best and how and when to move to HTML5. It would have made browsing on the iPad a much richer experience in the shorter term, while still pushing the migration to HTML5 in the longer run. I guess time will tell if it was the right call. (And it’s worth noting that almost everyone else — including Google and Microsoft — has made or is making a very different call, one like Mozilla’s).
In the meantime, this line from Brian Lam’s excellent iPad review continues to resonate with me:
I check my surf and snow sites and most of them work fine. Once, I see a video from some no-name site of the big storm that hit Tahoe with 50 inches of snow last week while covering the iPad launch in NY. It doesn’t work…. I bet that video was really good. Every time this happens, I get a little upset, which eats away at my affection for the iPad. This happened 3 times today, and will happen many more times before mom and pop websites get rid of Flash.