There are always battles being fought between existing and emerging technologies, and one currently capturing the headlines here at vzaar is Flash vs. HTML5.
Our business is all about delivering videos, so making sure we use the best technology to do this is a pretty important decision.
As with every case of this type, there are pros and cons to both approaches. I’ll outline the key points that helped us decide how to get the most from the two technologies.
Flash is well established as a video delivery platform. Way back in 2002 Macromedia release the first iteration of flash player – Flash Player 6 – with support for video playback. Demand for online video has been growing ever since, and Flash Player has been constantly evolving to keep pace.
As a result of this development Flash now boasts RTMP and RTMPe playback.
Secure Video Streaming
RTMP stand for Real Time Messaging Protocol, with the ‘e’ meaning encrypted. This is the most secure way to stream your videos. In a nutshell, RTMPe lets Flash Media Server – Adobe’s rich media server, designed to serve video and other assets to Flash applications – deliver encrypted chunks of the video to the viewer, just in time for them to be played back on the users device. These chunks are then deleted after watching, so the whole file is never left exposed on the viewer’s computer and is much less susceptible to download and theft. This video explains in a bit more detail.
Another positive for Flash is it runs in a virtual machine. In other words, Flash player does all the processing of any Flash file, independently of the browser that is displaying the content.
Most modern browsers are becoming a lot more consistent with how they handle web content, but there are still differences between them. These differences are why a web page can look different if you call it up in two different browsers.
The Flash Player virtual machine bypasses many of these differences and gives users an almost identical experience on all browsers.
This is also how Flash can play video on older browsers that are not themselves capable of playing a video file. It simply does all the work itself.
The big down side of Flash is that it doesn’t work on mobile or tablets. When smart phones started taking over the planet, there were a number of devices that ran a version of Flash Player, but this only really served to demonstrate that Flash and mobile don’t mix. Because mobile phones aren’t as powerful as a desktop computer, they were only capable of running a “Lite” version of Flash, which in turn, was incapable of running many Flash applications.
Users trying to access Flash content on their phones were often greeted by an error message or a blank square where the content should have been. When the Flash application did load, it would likely run very slowly, and have a UI designed for mouse based interaction instead of touch.
In 2011, soon after Apple publicly stated they weren’t going to support Flash on any of their iOS devices, Adobe announced the end of Flash for mobile. As a result, whilst Flash is a very effective online video delivery tool on the desktop, it’s pretty much useless for handheld devices.
With video becoming increasingly mobile accessing to hand held, these mobile consumers are critical to our clients. For this reason above all others, Flash is no longer the one stop shop for video delivery.
The Term HTML5 refers to the 5th version of the Hyper Text Markup Language, first released by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C in 2008. It’s the markup language used to create web pages. The key points – from our point of view at least – that separate HTML5 from version 4 are the inclusion of audio and video tags. These allow a web developer to add a video directly to the web page, without the need for a third party plugin like Flash.
HTML5 didn’t really take off until 2011 when Flash ended mobile support. By then it had had time to bed in and worked through the early teething problems. When the mobile Rich Internet Application (RIA) market opened up, HTML5 was ready and waiting to plug the gap.
About 80% of browsers – both mobile and desktop – now support HTML5 video. Critically, both Android and iOS are included in this 80%. This is why it was a no brainer decision for us to add HTML5 video support. Without it we’d basically be ignoring the two top mobile platforms.
HTML5 is definitely the up and coming technology. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding it and development driving it. In the not too distant future it may be the only technology required to play video, but at present it still has some omissions which mean it can’t yet cover all bases.
The first issue is the remaining 20% of browsers that don’t support HTML5 video. As a video hosting platform, our customers expect their videos to play on pretty much every internet connected device out there, not just 80% of them.
Secure Video Streaming
The second issue is security. At this point, there’s no method in place for securing videos delivered using HTML5. The video file is transferred to the viewer’s device openly, and is very easy to intercept, download and steal. For content owners who wish to keep control of their assets, this is a pretty critical point against HTML5.
Some big industrial names have been lobbying for the inclusion of a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system in HTML5, which would overcome the security issue. However, there’s also a number organisations fighting against such systems claiming that it would basically be a plug-in all of its own and therefore in conflict with HTML5’s goal of plugin free video delivery.
At this point we don’t know which side is going to win out, but we’ll definitely be keeping a keen eye out for any signs of an outcome.
Which is best?
Neither Flash or HTML5 has all the answers, but equally neither can be ignored.
Enabling videos to play back as smoothly as possible on pretty much any capable internet connected device, that means drawing upon the strengths of both technologies.
The good news is, you don’t really have to choose between the two. We’ll work out which method is best for you and automatically use it. We continue to use Flash for secure playback and to overcome compatibility issues with older browsers, whilst simultaneously pitting HTML5 against the mobile and tablet challenge.
I do believe, though, that HTML5 will play an ever more prominent role in our player development. Delivering to mobile and tablets was reason enough to embrace the technology as it stands, but if DRM becomes possible, and as the supported browser percentages goes up, we’ll definitely be placing increased importance on this fresh and evolving approach.