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InfoQ Homepage News HTML5, H.264 and Flash roundup

HTML5, H.264 and Flash roundup

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Last week, InfoQ published a piece on YouTube offering HTML5 beta for its videos, in H.264 format. Shortly thereafter, Vimeo announced an HTML5 beta as well, also using H.264 as the video codec.

Chris Blizzard, an open-source evangelist at Mozilla, described why they are sticking with Ogg, using the GIF submarine patent as an example of what can go wrong. In that instance, a patent-covered (but up until then, royalty free) image format became the de-facto standard on the Web, which was subsequently targeted for extortion after the fact. (The patents expired in 2003 and 2004.) In this case, the PNG format was created as a free replacement to GIF and is now the de-facto standard for images on the web.

H.264, meanwhile, is licensed by the MPEG-LA. Mike Shaver, Mozilla's vice-president of engineering, says that it is illegal to use H.264 without paying license fees. There was an initial fee moratorium for free-to-view over the internet which lasted until the end of 2010; recently, that has been extended to the end of 2015. However, license fees are still potentially incurred for other uses, including hardware that performs H.264 decoding. (Apple and Google both license H.264 for their products; in both cases, there is an upper limit on the license fee that means they are effectively covered completely across their product range for a fixed price.)

Arguably, Apple has done more to promote H.264 than any other single vendor (although it should be noted that H.264 is also part of the Blue-ray spec), since it ships computers with hardware-accelerated H.264 decoding as well as handhelds (iPhone, iPod Touch, and now the iPad) that are capable of displaying H.264 video. In fact, one of the reasons that YouTube supported H.264 over Flash in the first place was at Apple's insistence that they provide low-resolution H.264 video streams for their iPhone YouTube app.

The debate notched up another level with last week's announcement of the iPad. As astute viewers will have noticed, Flash plugins on the New York Times were shown as the missing plugin icon; not entirely surprisingly, since the iPhone doesn't play Flash either. At a recent Apple Town Hall, Jobs is adamant that Flash will never be on the iPhone or iPad:

[Adobe] are lazy. They have all this potential to do interesting things, but they just refuse to do it. They don't do anything with the approaches that Apple is taking, like Carbon. Apple does not support Flash because it is so buggy. Whenever a Mac crashes more often than not it's because of Flash. No one will be using Flash. The world is moving to HTML5.

Kevin Lynch claims that there's no real problem:

Regarding crashing, I can tell you that we don't ship Flash with any known crash bugs, and if there was such a widespread problem historically Flash could not have achieved its wide use today.

Now regarding performance, given identical hardware, Flash Player on Windows has historically been faster than the Mac, and it is for the most part the same code running in Flash for each operating system. In Flash Player 10.1 we are moving to CoreAnimation, which will further reduce CPU usage and we believe will get us to the point where Mac will be faster than Windows for graphics rendering.

Video rendering is an area we are focusing more attention on -- for example, today a 480p video on a 1.8 Ghz Mac Mini in Safari uses about 34% of CPU on Mac versus 16% on Windows (running in BootCamp on same hardware). With Flash Player 10.1, we are optimizing video rendering further on the Mac and expect to reduce CPU usage by half, bringing Mac and Windows closer to parity for video.

Some grass root petitions have been kicked off, in order to try and muster support for Flash on the iPhone/iPad, but given that the iPhone has been doing pretty well over the last few years without Flash, it doesn't look like it will get there any time soon. John Gruber, of Daring Fireball, asked Who can do something about those blue boxes?, with the answer that the ball is firmly in Apple's court.


A flash-supporting site put together a (simulated) set up of what several well known (and one not so well known) seb sites would look like without Flash support at TheFlashBlog. Where Flash content would be on the computer, it was photoshopped to show the 'missing plugin' location. However, what actually failed to happen was the realisation that if you were to browse to those sites, mobile-optimised (and H.264 ready) already exist. Kendell Geiner put together the same selection of sites from an iPhone; whilst Hulu and Farmville don't work, the remainder shown earlier do.

Over the past two weeks, the focus on moving away from Flash to HTML5's video has certainly been given a couple of boosts; firstly, by some high-profile video sites using the new technology, and of course the Apple iPad (although arguably, the same scenario already existed for the Apple iPhone). However, the future of which video codec will become dominant is still an unresolved matter. What is fairly likely to happen is that serious sites will generate H.264 compatible videos, whilst Free sites (like Wikimedia) will insist on Ogg. Ultimately, sites that are coded to work for the iPhone/iPad (the predominant mobile browsing experience by far) are going to push the widespread adoption of H.264; as video continues to replace Flash, Google's Chrome browser will eat into Firefox's advantage (mostly because Chrome can play both Ogg and H.264). Unless Firefox has some kind of proprietary video codec installed, or the MPEGLA provide a generic license for software decoders, it's likely that the debate on the final HTML5 video codec will go on and on.

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Community comments

  • The h264 royalty statement is misleading

    by Chirstopher Montgomery,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    "There was an initial fee moratorium for free-to-view over the internet which lasted until the end of 2010"

    This makes it sound as if Mozilla is lying and h264 is free and they don't want to use it. The MPEG-LA announcement that came earlier this month states that there will be no new royalties added to the existing royalty structure, and that existing software, hardware, encoder and decoder royalties remain in effect. Those royalties must be paid regardless of commercial or free use. The much talked about new per-stream royalty on 'broadcast' content would not be added until after 2015. All existing rates may still be raised yearly according to the complete text.

    The wording would seem to be confusing as plenty of blogs have been printing 'h264 is free! it's free!' when what MPEG-LA announced is that they're not raising prices this year, they may raise prices next year, and there's a potentially large price hike looming in 2016.

    [There is also text about how buying an MPEG-LA license does not protect the licensor from royalty claims by patent holders outside of the MPEG-LA, and that the license is invalid if there is any use of unlicensed software at any point. There's tons of other interesting stuff in the fine print.]

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