The Myth of "HTML5 Video"

Is anyone else sick of hearing about the Adobe Flash vs. HTML5 debate? I certainly am, but maybe not for the same reasons as most. I'm annoyed because the people making the argument, particularly those opposing Flash, position HTML5 Video as an alternative video format. It's not. It's a tag in the markup specification. 

How does that work? Well, if I'm coding a webpage in HTML now I can include the tag <video> in my webpage and your browser should know to handle it. It's the same as being able to put the <img> tag in a web page and have your browser show an inline picture. The Image tag has traditionally supported open standards and therefore addresses .jpg or .gif formatted files. But there's nothing really keeping a browser from including support for .tiff files as well; there's just no benefit in doing so because everybody has already settled on the standards.

These standards, by the way, are maintained by an organization called the W3C consortium, which currently does not specify a standard file format for HTML5 video. Why? Primarily because there is no format that currently meets the same standard of openness that we have with, say, JPEGs. Recent browsers are starting to support HTML5 even without these standards. Some will play a file referenced by a video tag if it's encoded with the h.264 codec, others if it's encoded with Ogg Theora. Some do both. The VP8 codec might get open-sourced and be supported in the near future. 

The important thing to note is that these are not standards, they are decisions made by browser producers.

Why then is the argument here Flash (which is not a standard) versus HTML5 (which is)? The only reason is that it's a smoke and mirrors game being played by certain manufacturers to conflate their product with something that is open when the truth is a little more complicated.

H.264 is available publicly but at a certain point can shift to a royalty model. It is based on patents that are held by various browser manufacturers. So one has to ask then, is the interest in supporting this codec self-serving? The same manufacturers don't want to support Ogg Theora, which is certainly open right now, because they claim that they fear there may be unknown patents involved with that. Of course those patents are unknown to these manufacturers primarily because they don't own them. So one has to ask, is the interest in not supporting this codec self-serving?

What about Flash? To my knowledge, Flash has never been, nor has Adobe pushed for it to be part of a browser standard. Flash has always been viewed via browser plug-ins. What's keeping a browser from supporting flash as part of the video tag? Well, since Flash is maintained and updated with its own feature set by a commercial entity, it makes sense that the player for Flash files be distributed by that company and supported by it. 

There's where things go amiss in the smear campaign. Browser manufacturers are saying "we're not going to support Flash." But, wait, no one's asking you to SUPPORT flash, and no one is saying it should be part of the HTML5 standard. What Adobe wants is for you to ALLOW a flash plugin. To say that the conflict is Flash vs HTML5 Video is misleading in the extreme. The conflict is really Flash vs H.264, which is no less proprietary. It's actually worse than that. It's the choice to develop using Flash or H.264 versus the mandate to use H.264 only. 

On the side of H.264-only are parties who are deceiving you about what the conflict really is, and who have a vested interest in removing that choice. My diatribe here isn't about which is better, Flash or "HTML5 Video." It's about misinformation. If you're going to have a battle with the future of consumer dollars in the balance, please at least be honest with what that battle is about.