Thursday, March 18, 2010

HTML5 – What Does It Really Mean ?

It’s become the buzz phrase everyone in the internet TV world is getting all worked up about. But what does it really mean ?

First of all, let’s look at what HTML 5 is. Essentially it is the latest manifestation of the markup language which is used to construct web pages. When HTML was first developed by Tim Berners-Lee and others it was simple and allowed for laying out text and images and adding links and little else. The standards are set and ratified by W3.org. But, like most standards bodies things move slowly and the commercial world tends to take ideas and run with them.

The language has evolved and spawned a number of other associated standards such as CSS (cascading style sheets). Video first became possible by embedding other objects within a HTML page, and that is still the way it is handled today, you take a Windows Media, Flash Video or Quick Time object and embed it.

This means that there is very little flexibility and controlling the video and the video elements, such as the controls is complex.

Now HTML has evolved to its fifth iteration (which is unlikely to be ratified for many, many more years) many organisations have seen the opportunity to provide much more open control over video within the standard. HTML5 has concepts which are close to those found in applications such as Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight.

However, there are a number of problems with this ambition to control video through HTML5. The primary one is that the main video codecs are proprietary (there is conjecture that Google bought On2 to create an open source codec, but I have no concrete proof of this).

The most commonly used codec now, especially for HD is H.264 (also called MPEG4), but bits of this are owned by an array of commercial companies who could turn around at any point and start demanding licensing.

Google has started to use and showcase HTML5 controls on YouTube, albeit using H.264 files. Here’s an example.

The reality is that HTML5 is in its infancy. For example, it isn’t yet supported by Internet Explorer (although IE9 will soon provide this capability). So, anyone developing a service will need to support both Flash and HTML5 for now.

But HTML5 is going lead to changes. It is likely to impact Microsoft’s largely unsuccessful Silverlight far more heavily than Flash in the short term.

Devices such as the iPhone and the iPad are likely to go directly to HTML5 support, cutting out Flash.

HTML5 also makes it considerably easier to develop across platforms. With most televisions set to have web browsers, HTML5 is a potentially more lightweight framework that does not demand hardware acceleration in the same way that Flash does – good news for lightweight devices such as smartphones and set top boxes. (However, recent tests show that the advantages might not be that great).

At VidZapper we’re working on a player building framework that is language independent, so that we can easily swap out the player and the codec wrapper. Indeed, in theory we should be able to combine different formats within the same playlist or schedule, although this isn’t exactly to be recommended.

You can read the full HTML5 standard as it stands here.