5 Things You Need To Know About HTML5

At this week’s Streaming Media East 2010 in New York City, much of the discussion centered on the future of HTML5 and its immediate and long-term effects on the video-streaming community.

Many view HTML5, the latest proposed version of the language used to construct Web pages, as the long-desired solution to the severely fragmented state of video on the Web. The hope is that its implementation will create a new standard for displaying and streaming video online by eliminating the need for proprietary, plug-in–based video players like Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight.

Certain aspects of HTML5 are already supported by some browsers, but it really began to gain traction when Apple announced that it will use HTML5 for the iPad because it “enables audio and video to play natively in the browser without requiring proprietary plug-ins. With HTML5, you can add media to a Website with just a few lines of code.”

This has set off a nasty war of words between Apple and Adobe, not to mention an onslaught of questions about HTML5. In hopes of answering some of these questions, Streaming Media East engineered a panel titled HTML5 and Web Video Standards.

Based on this panel’s insights, here are five things you need to know about HTML5.

1. HTML5 is in its infancy; there is still a long way to go.
While a large segment of the streaming community sees HTML5 as the future of video on the Web and on portable devices, many are taking a wait-and-see approach in these early stages.

“HTML5 is our new baby, and everybody thinks that their new baby is the cutest new baby ever. So let’s wait till he’s a toddler and see what happens,” said Monty Montgomery, director of the Xiph.org foundation, a non-profit corporation for development of free, open Internet protocols and software. “I think accusing HTML5 of being a total solution is looking for problem. It does offer a lot more, but no one has really seen it yet. ”

While the iPad pushed many content producers headfirst into the HTML5 pool, many have opted to test the iPad waters first, rolling out stripped-down HTML5 versions of their sites for the iPad.

“We looked at HTML5 off and on for a long time but never really moved on it until the iPad came out,” says Justin Eckhouse, senior product manager of video and mobile, CBS Interactive, which controls CNET.com. “We developed our iPad app [for CNET TV] in about 10 days. It’s a stripped-down version of CNET TV. All of our content is available there, but there isn’t a huge infrastructure there because there are not that many people with iPads and there’s not going to be for a long time; that is true with any new device.”

2. You can’t talk about HTML5 without talking about codecs.
The development of HTML5 video thus far has been hindered by an ongoing battle over which video codecs should be supported. Currently, the most popular codec for Web video is the h.264. The issue with it centers on the fact that it is covered by patents and licensed out to several companies (including Microsoft and Apple). This makes the development of a universal video standard based on h.264 much more difficult.

“HTML5 as a specification is completely agnostic to codec,” said panel moderator Tim Napoleon, co-founder/president of Alldigital. “But codecs do get pulled into the equation because there are camps out there that want a streaming world unencumbered by patents — from video player to video codec to the rendering agent. Sometimes that gets lumped into the conversation. We can’t just talk about HTML5; we also have to talk about our entire video workflow.”

Montgomery adds that the outcome of the codec debate is difficult to predict at this early stage. “It’s hard to talk about the mess in the codec world because it’s a huge fight and it’s not terribly certain how it’s going to turn out,” he says. “An open standard that no one is allowed to use isn’t particularly useful.”

3. It’s all about standards.
Apple’s argument in favor HTML5 revolves around the idea that Adobe Flash is a closed system, while HTML5 is a truly open Web standard. An open standard would allow content producers to create a single video element, rather than constructing a different application for each browser or device. As a result, HTML5 video represents a huge cost- and time-saving measure for online content producers.

However, until HTML5 takes off on a mass scale, it is just another platform that content producers must take into account.

“There’s no standardization or workflow that makes it easy right now, which is why we think hard on every platform we’re going to hit.” said Eckhouse.  “Are people going to stop installing Flash, so we need to make a super-robust HTML5 player, or can we let it sit around and keep it as is for a while? Right now, we have to make some hard decisions. ”

4. Don’t count Adobe and Flash out just yet.
Adobe’s Flash player still has a major foothold in the market, even with Apple’s iPad announcement. Despite the migration of several major content producers to HTML5 to avoid losing possible iPad users, Flash remains the most prevalent way to watch video on the Web.

“For content owners, the landscape is incredibly fragmented right now,” said Jennifer Taylor, director, Flash content creation and distribution, Adobe.  “In order to develop something for smartphones right now, you have to develop something that is specific to [each mobile device]. Flash is not THE solution, we understand that. But we also hope to accelerate the defragmentation of this landscape so that everyone can really innovate.”

If HTML5 becomes the dominant approach to display video, Adobe will be in a prime position to take advantage. As one of the leading names in online production tools, Adobe may look to capitalize on what is currently an extremely thin market for HTML5 production tools.

“We see this as a huge opportunity. We have a very significant investment on the HTML side,” said Taylor. “I actually started out on the HTML5 side, and it’s very near and dear to my heart. I think we’re also going to be putting our money where our mouth is and contributing more of an investment to support HTML5. We are definitely signaling in that direction.”

In addition, many media outlets have invested extensive time and funds into developing their Flash video players. For many, it is not financially feasible at this point to give up on Flash and invest in an HTML5 platform.

“We have our Flash player built out, and it was a fairly significant investment,” said Eckhouse. “It’s not just playing video. It’s connecting out to our ad servers, managing service quality, talking to our content management, and 100 other little things that we can’t necessarily replicate for every new platform, whether that’s HTML5 or something else.”

In addition, HTML5 video can not yet offer many of the advanced capabilities available with Flash.

“Our HTML5 player is very basic compared to our Flash player, which we’ve spent years improving,” he added. “I think it’s going to be some time before it reaches the level of maturity [of our Flash Player]. We can certainly transfer some of the knowledge that we’ve learned, but there just isn’t the ecosystem around HTML5 right now that there is around Flash.”

5. The iPad is just the beginning; more HTML5 will follow.
Despite seemingly endless questions, few can deny that HTML5 is here to stay. Whereas the iPad served as a catalyst, the specification will continue to gain ground over the coming months and years. Several content producers have already reported solid returns on their HTML5 investment.

“We just launched and redesigned the National Geographic site,” said Greg Harris, chief creative officer, Daily Interactive. “Prior to the announcement of the iPad, we were using Flash as our video player. But, when they announced the launch of the iPad, we quickly scrambled and redid the video player in HTML5. This worked out great because we’re available on a lot of devices that we weren’t when the site was using Flash.”

Eckhouse noted that public opinion has shifted largely in favor of HTML5. “I think people really like the speed of HTML5. Right or wrong, a lot of our consumers feel that Flash slows down the computer. We get a lot of e-mails all the time about an HTML5 version for non-iPad users.”

One thing is sure: the battle over HTML5 is just getting started.

“Things are not going to be settled down in six months,” said Montgomery. “I think we can all agree on that.”