Myth 2. HTML5 is Ready for Prime Time
- Categorized in: Encoding your video
Upon reflection, it's not surprising that HTML5 isn't used by any major sites, since it's clearly not ready for prime time. Deficits fall in four major areas, installed base of HTML5-compatible browsers, the requirement to encode in multiple formats to support HTML5, performance and a critical feature deficit for sites where streaming video is mission critical. Let's take each in turn.
Figure 2 shows the installed base of browsers from a report produced by NetMarketShare. As you can see, as of July 2010, Internet Explorer, which offers the least HTML5 compatibility of all browsers, still sits at over 60% as of July, 2010.
Figure 2. Browser market share.
More disturbing is Figure 3, also from NetMarketShare, which shows how many 'Netizens don't instantly upgrade to the newest browser or browser version. The 17.58% still using Internet Explorer 6 is remarkable when you consider that this browser was first introduced in 2001.
Figure 3. Market share by browser version.
With Internet Explorer 9 scheduled for release in 2011, these numbers should shift significantly over the next few years. But remember - while many consumer and small business users are free to update their computers at their whim, huge numbers of computers in major corporations, schools and government offices are completely locked down, and can't be upgraded without corporate-wide fiat. In addition, for every technology innovator who updates their browsers as soon as possible, there are twenty or so in the late majority or laggard classes who couldn't care less.
Locked down desktops and non-early adapter users are why Microsoft's decision not to support WebM unless already installed on the computer is so critical (discussed more below). HTML5 proponents assume this means that all IE9 users will actually find and install WebM from another source. But what about locked down desktops that can't install additional software, or Uncle Harry, a casual surfer who thinks that web updates are the surest way to catch a virus? If you're trying to reach corporate desktops, or technology laggards, will you assume they can will find WebM? (As an interesting aside, will Adobe include WebM in the downloadable Flash Player if it turns out that Flash is the source of WebM for all those IE9 desktops that might otherwise not obtain the codec? Will HMTL5's codec-related success with IE9 depend upon the Flash plug-in HTML5-tistas love to hate?)
Ditto for Google Chromium - it's great to say that IE users can install that plug-in and gain immediate HTML5 compatibility, but that assumes that the user can (and knows to) install the plug-in. Not to mention that most of the appeal of HTML5 is the elimination of plug-ins - so now I have to install a plug-in to avoid installing a plug-in?
In stark comparison to HTML5's penetration stands Flash's audited penetration statistics.
Overall, while users seem to refuse to update their browsers, they stay pretty current on Flash.
For reasons unknown, HTML5 had assumed an unproven and unwarranted mantle for superior performance. Then I actually tested HTML5 performance against Flash and found Flash performance superior in most test scenarios. Here was my primary conclusion:
When it comes to efficient video playback, the ability to access hardware acceleration is the single most important factor in the overall CPU load. On Windows, where Flash can access hardware acceleration, the CPU requirements drop to negligible levels. It seems reasonable to assume that if the Flash Player could access GPU-based hardware acceleration on the Mac (or iPod/iPhone/iPad), the difference between the CPU required for HTML5 playback and Flash playback would be very much narrowed, if not eliminated.
Apple did later open up their GPU-related APIs, and Flash's performance improved dramatically, well ahead of Chrome running HTML5, though still behind Safari running HTML5.
Obviously, browser vendors are integrating GPU acceleration into future browser versions. However, until those browsers are released and tested, it's silly to assume that they will be more efficient than Flash.
In addition, as discussed below, GPU accelerated Flash playback can run on all browser versions that have the necessary graphics hardware, while browser acceleration will require a complete browser update. This means that it will take much longer for HTML5-based hardware acceleration to reach the masses.
The Codec Conundrum
Which gets us to the codec conundrun, which makes the BetaMax vs. VHS and HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray wars look logical. Briefly, there are three HTML5 compatible codecs, Ogg Theora, H.264 and WebM. Here's the status of current browser support from the excellent Dive Into HTML5 site.
As you can see, no format is supported by all browsers. Here's what the situation will look like after all announced browsers are shipping, though Microsoft has announced that IE 9 will support H.264 playback, and VP8 if installed on the system. Here's the precise quote "In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows."
To be fully HTML5 compatible with all current and legacy HTML5-compatible browsers, web developers will have to support at least three formats. For example, here’s a code snippet from www.jilion.com/sublime/video, showing the syntax used to deploy the necessary files produced by Jilion for their HTML5 player.
Yes, that’s four files, and if the website uses VP6 for Flash, they have to produce in that format as well.
Perhaps producing these extra formats would make sense if they delivered some benefit above and beyond H.264. To the publisher of free internet video, H.264 is now free in perpetuity, however, so there's no benefit there. Ogg has much lower quality than H.264 according to my own tests and many others, and now seems as dead as Latin. WebM is promising, and offers similar quality to H.264, though hardware playback support is much further along with H.264, resulting in a superior playback experience for H.264 on a wider variety of machines.
Now onto the final reason HTML5 isn't ready for prime time.
HTML5's Feature Deficit
This is pretty objective, so I'll make a quick list of key features currently unavailable in HTML5.
- True streaming - where a server streams video as needed to the player, or a player retrieves data as necessary to sustain smooth playback. Key to efficiently satisfying high volume of users.
- Adaptive streaming - the ability to switch between streams to adapt to changing connection conditions and ensure the highest possible quality for both low speed and high speed connections.
- Digital rights management (DRM) - either user authentication, or any mechanism for encryption.
- Live streaming
- DVR functionality - key to many of athletic event offerings like Sunday Night Football.
- Multicasting - the ability for one stream to be shared by multiple viewers. Very efficient in enterprise settings.
- Peer to peer delivery - the ability for peers to distribute streaming video, which can be exceptionally efficient when multicast isn't available.
All of these technologies either are or will soon be available in Flash and Silverlight; none are available in HTML5 or even that far in the development cycle.
To be fair, many of these features are irrelevant to many, many sites simply delivering video playback in a window. However, UGC aside, and that's clearly a special case, most video streams are produced and delivered by media sites like the three letter networks who need to both monetize and protect their content.
To these networks, and many other video distributors, the features currently unavailable in HTML5 represent signifcant obstacles to HTML5 adaption. As shown in the table below, in the StreamingMedia Survey, we asked respondents to rate their concerns about HTML5. As you can see, the codec issue rated a 4 or 5 for 56% of respondents, while 57% of respondents rated browser penetration a 4 or 5. The lack of adaptive streaming, DRM and complete support among advertising networks was also very concerning. These are not abstract feature deficits, they are significant obstacles to reaching potential viewers via HTML5, monetizing content or equaling the user experience available with Flash or Silverlight.
OK, you say, sure HTML5 is behind, but because group standards are such a robust platform for feature development, HTML5 will certainly catch up quickly. That leads us to the next myth about HTML5.