According to Google trends, HTML5 is one of the hottest technology topics today and in the very near future, it will be the language of choice for web applications, displacing Flash. The most publicized reason for the push to build web apps in HTML5 is that Flash is not allowed on the iPhone and the iPad, but the reasons go deeper and more technical than that.
This is a cross-post blog that I wrote at my employer, BetterVideo, and is being republished here with permission.
The fact is, Flash was overly prominent in the early 2000s due to the lack of browser innovation. The browser wars of the 1990s saw Netscape and Internet Explorer battle it out with a profusion of new features, and when the dust settled, only Internet Explorer was left standing, and it no longer had competition. Instead of continuing with its innovations, Microsoft found itself in the position of plugging holes and doing bug fixes to the hastily implemented features that were causing security flaws with the operating system.
Combine the lack of browser innovation with the fact that video technology was also not keeping pace with the web. In the late 1990s, web video was controlled by Quicktime, Windows Media, and Real Networks. At first just the fact that video could play over the Internet was good enough, and these three companies immediately began attempts at monetization. These early attempts were heavy handed to put it mildly. Users didn’t want to upgrade to Quicktime Pro, they resented Real Networks pestering them in the task bar, and Microsoft was never interested in their videos playing in other browsers. On top of everything else, they didn’t work very well, delivering meager frame rates, dropped frames, and stuttering, out of sync audio. And developers didn’t like these plugins taking over their page and using nag-ware on their audience.
Flash video changed that. The early versions could only handle short clips, but in 2004 and the release of Flash MX, the FLV video file format was introduced, with a new and exciting codec by Sorenson Spark that made the videos not only look good, but made them very small. Flash video worked smoothly over the web, especially over the broadband connections that were becoming more common. Its “killer app” however was the launch of YouTube in 2005. Flash video had become the industry standard.
The W3C wasn’t helping either. They had essentially declared HTML dead as they were focusing their efforts on XHMTL 2.0 (which was never formally released and no one technically used it). Not liking that HTML was not evolving and that the proprietary Flash technology was taking over the web, Apple, Mozilla and Opera formed the Web Hypertext Application Technology Work Group (WHATWG) to create the HTML5 proposal with several goals in mind:
- Return the web to its open roots
- Bypass Flash, Silverlight, JavaFX
- Modernize HTML
- Backward compatibility
- Specs match implementation
- Specs clear and unambiguous
The way standards were implemented also changed. Instead of waiting years for something to be agreed upon within the standards bodies, the browsers implemented the technology first, and if they worked and were popular they were then submitted for standardization. Microsoft dragged its feet for another few years, giving excuses that the spec was too difficult, but finally have gotten with the program and with the IE9 preview release, embraced not only HTML5, but SVG, and H264 video.
There are still roadblocks. IE 9 isn’t going to be released until some time next year, and in the process it needs to displace IE6, which still holds too much of the browser market and is impairing web advancements. The spec for video was unfortunately left ambiguous due to the many patents that surrounds it, as we discussed in our previous post. It had looked like things were settled with two primary codecs in H264 and Theora, but Google has stirred the pot and introduced WebM as a royalty-free option. Browsers are now innovating at a pace that is keeping up with new technology and Flash is rightfully going to take a back-seat as a simple plugin. BetterVideo is currently doing R&D into an HTML5 video player and is positioning itself to not only be well-integrated with HTML5 web apps, but plans to be an innovator. The next year should be a very exciting time for web video!