While Apple/Adobe Battle Over Video Streaming, HTML5 Makes Inroads

Much of the chatter surrounding video streaming at NAB 2010 centered on Apple’s apparent declaration of war on Adobe’s Flash Player but all of the discussion seems to be moving HTML5, and its potential as a new video streaming standard, to the foreground.

“I think HTML 5 is going to be great for some of the lower-end video scenarios that don’t require a lot of advanced intelligence,” says Steve Sklepowich, director of Silverlight marketing at Microsoft. “But plug-ins will be needed for things like DRM [Digital Rights Management], adaptive streaming, advanced interactivity, rich data binding, etc. There are also a lot of unknowns around IP licensing and it’s a little unclear on the codec side. Will it be H.264? Still, I think [HTML5] will grow up naturally as plug-ins continue to expand.”

HTML5 is essentially the latest proposed version of the Hypertext Markup Language used to construct Web pages. The hope is that the implementation of HTML5 will create a new standard to display and stream video online and eliminate the need for proprietary, plug-in-based video players like Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. Apple operating systems like the iPhone and iPad do not support video embedded using either Flash or Silverlight, but will support HTML5 video.

However, the development of HTML 5 video has been severely hindered by an ongoing battle regarding which video formats and codecs should be supported under the specification. Currently, the most popular codec for Web video is the MPEG4 h.264 but it also 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.

Although the HTML 5 specification was first published in 2008, it remains a work in progress.

“Our belief is that HTML 5 is going to take a couple years to really gain maturity, especially in terms of adaptive bit rate,” says John Bishop III, co-founder/SVP of business development and strategy for Inlet. “That’s the biggest thing that we think has to get some traction out in HTML 5 land. So we’re making sure that we can support all formats – Silverlight, Flash, whatever.”

Nonetheless, certain aspects of HTML 5 video have been completed and are already supported by browsers and devices, including Apple’s iPad and iPhone. Companies such as Brightcove have already assisted a variety of media outlets like ESPN, CNN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal to develop streaming video technology for the iPad and other Apple Operating systems using HTML5.

“I think this is basically the lead-in to HTML 5,” says Bishop. “This is Apple putting their space out there and saying [HTML 5] is the way to go, and I think that’s a good approach.”

Regardless of all the gossip surrounding the death of Flash or rise of HTML5, the truth is that HTML5 still has a long way to go. For example, Internet Explorer, the world’s most widely used browser, is only now including support for HTML5 with the soon-to-be-released IE9. As a result, most sites that stream video will have to support plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight as well as HTML5 for the foreseeable future.

“HTML plug-ins have existed forever and they will continue to be complimentary technologies,” say Sklepowich. “I went to the first HTML conference in 1996 and HTML was talking with RealAudio and Shockwave back then, so obviously plug-ins have always existed alongside HTML as it advanced and grew up. I think that will always be the case.”

While HTML5 waits in the wings, the increasingly ugly battle between Apple and Adobe looks to have no end in sight. Adobe’s new Flash Pro CS5 was supposed to feature the ability to repackage Flash-based apps so they could run on the iPhone and iPad, but the company announced this week that it has scrapped the technology after Apple essentially barred Adobe-created apps from the iPhone with the new terms of its iPhone 4.0 Software Developer Kit license.

“The fact that [Flash and Silverlight] don’t work on [the iPad] is going to make things very interesting,” says Bishop. “As far as who’s going to win – I think it’s great to have multiple horses in the game because at the end of the day the consumer will come out on top.”

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