Will Future Changes In The Online Video Landscape Kill Adobe Flash?

Bertrand Tay

One of the hottest trending topics this past month has been the continued reluctance of Apple not to support Adobe Flash on its mobile devices like the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch (hereon known as iDevices).

So while many iDevices users lament primarily on their inability to watch online videos from certain sources,  I am surprised that not much has been mentioned on the bigger war (both figuratively and literally) being fought – the war to be the online video codec of choice on PCs. YES, a Macintosh IS a PC).

Background

For a while now, online video has been relatively simple. You used Adobe Flash with its 95% plus market share. Then things changed. The next Web standard, HTML 5 came along, but it didn’t spell out that Flash or anything else would be the video codec standard. But with Steve Jobs recently writing an open letter reiterating Apple’s condemnation of  Flash, all of a sudden we are seeing more attention and awareness being placed onto HTML5.

Here is a list of web browsers currently supporting HTML5 video element:

  • Firefox 3-5+
  • Safari 4+
  • Google Chrome 3+
  • Opera 10.5+
  • Internet Explorer 9 developer preview

As you can see, all major web browsers already support the video element. The bad news is that the battle lines have already been drawn and these browsers can be grouped into 2:

Web browsers supporting H.264 (Patented)

  • Safari
  • Google Chrome
  • Internet Explorer 9 developer preview

Web browsers supporting Ogg Theora (Open source)

  • Firefox
  • Google Chrome
  • Opera

If this continues, content providers will have to encode videos into multiple formats or run the risk of alienating a large group of viewers.

The Issue With Patents

Current trends, witnessed by significant and successful open source projects such as Mozilla, Linux and Apache, seem to suggest that the open source way of doing things is the web way of doing things. Sadly, for us consumers, there has always been tension between those who would like to control, for economic profit or for the gratification of control itself, the direction of the web’s development, and open-source developers.

Just with web standards, HTML elements and everything else on the web, it is vital to have an open, patent-free format for the sake of the future and openness. This puts Adobe out of the running immediately and while H.264 will be royalty free till 2016, that is also most likely when web browsers supporting the video element hold a sufficiently large market share to be a viable option for native video without fallbacks. Imagine if MPEG LA (who owns the H.264 patent) decides to activate their royalties.

MPEG LA news section (http://www.mpegla.com/main/Pages/Media.aspx) does not provide much assurance to content providers either. On the aforementioned page, try doing a quick ctrl-f on the word “sue”.

The Options

In February this year, Google bought over On2 Technologies, valued approximately at $124.6 million, for the VP8 codec. Rumours have been swirling that Google will be open-sourcing its newly acquired VP8 video codec, which its creators claim require relatively low processing power to decode and display, even at HD resolutions.

Microsoft deciding to support Ogg Theora in IE9, exclusively or in addition to H.264, would effectively mean a market where every web browser would support an open format (but Safari, who would be forced to adapt).

The Likely Outcome

I am no futurist, but my humble opinion suggests that it will be a toss-up between H.264 and VP 8 (if it really performs better than Ogg Theora). Even if VP 8 prevails, H.264 is not going away in the near future as it is burned into the firmware of many coding and playback devices (think iDevices) as eventually VP8 will be. Flash will fade away into a software museum alongside Napster and Kazaa, while Internet users are floored by what HTML5 brings to their desktop and mobile devices.

One thing’s for sure though, the biggest loser out of all this is likely to be Adobe.

The Takeaway For Online Marketers

This war has piqued the interest of many in HTML5 as shown in the Google Trends report below.

HTML5  Trends


HTML5 is proving to be a very formidable foe for Adobe not just because of its video playback capability. Within the next 2 – 3 years, web developers will be able to create fully immersive and rich web browsing experiences on HTML5. And the best part of it all is that HTML5 will be an integrated feature of  the worldwide web, so all web browsers have to fully integrate and support it by default.

For SEM and SEO practitioners, anything that sounds the death knell on Adobe Flash is great news because any code or content within the Flash element is harder for search engines to pick up. Not only that, Flash websites take a longer time to load and thus might affect a campaign’s Quality Score. If that isn’t enough, setting up tracking on Flash websites previously not created with analytics in mind is tedious and sometimes practically impossible, hence severely hampering optimisation efforts.

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