Say good-bye to Flash, but is HTML5 winning?

Latest reports show Adobe is losing fight for Flash supremacy, but a few bothersome details dampen the applause for HTML5

Earlier this week, video-centric search and social ranking site MeFeedia released a surprising statistic: In the past 12 months, the percentage of MeFeedia-indexed videos that are compatible with HTML5 has risen from 10 percent to 63 percent. In January 2010, if your browser supported HTML5 but didn't run Flash (as would be the case on stock iPhones or iPads), you could only see 10 percent of the videos in MeFeedia's index. In February 2011, an HTML5 browser sans Flash support could see 63 percent of the indexed videos. That's an impressive jump.

MeFeedia helps people find videos, trailers, news reports, music, and online games. It currently indexes media from more than 32,000 sites, including Hulu, Vimeo, CBS, ABC, and YouTube. MeFeedia is format-agnostic: It'll index media that works in any kind of media player. That's why it's in an unusual position to keep track of the way video formats on the Web are changing.

Encoding.com is an online high-volume encoding service that encoded 5 million videos this past year. Their customers include MTV, WebMD, Nokia, MySpace, and Red Bull. Their company blog says that demand for H.264 encoding has gone from 31 percent of its business to 66 percent in the past year.

Neither MeFeedia nor Encoding.com can be considered indicative of Web video formats in general. I spent hours sifting through MeFeedia's new video feeds and found a preponderance of news and sports clips from major TV sources, movie trailers, music videos of variable quality, amateur and network TV comedy of even more variable quality, and lots and lots of broken links. Encoding.com is a commercial enterprise that changes formats in high volume for big customers.

Some people feel that these statistics foretell the demise of Flash as we know it. But before you gleefully drive a handful of nails into Adobe's proprietary coffin and shout hosannas for HTML5's open underpinnings, a few bothersome details deserve a full airing.

First, technically, Flash and H.264 aren't mutually exclusive technologies. Many people forget that H.264 videos can play with the Flash player.

Second, HTML5 isn't a video format -- a fact that Google recently drove home by announcing that it won't support H.264 in HTML5 in the Chrome browser, favoring an open source format/codec known as WebM. Ever the helpful, ahem, partner, Microsoft added H.264 support to Chrome via a Windows Media Player HTML5 extension for Chrome.

Here's the scorecard:

  • Apple loves HTML5 and H.264, but hates Flash.
  • Microsoft loves HTML5 and H.264 -- even declaring H.264 the default codec in Internet Explorer 9 -- and tolerates Flash.
  • Apple and Microsoft belong to a patent pool known as MPEG-LA that licenses the code for H.264. Google would have to pay to support H.264.
  • Firefox loves HTML5, tolerates Flash, supports WebM, but can't afford to pay the royalties for H.264.
  • Google loves HTML5 and WebM, builds Flash into its browser, but hates H.264.
  • Google may (or may not) hold royalty-free patents to WebM.

Google's YouTube contains roughly 40 percent of all the vides on the Web, and as of right now YouTube loves H.264. It isn't clear if Google/YouTube will have to pay royalties for H.264 material. If Google has to pay royalties for H.264 YouTube videos, expect the infatuation with H.264 to go down the tubes, fast.

One more wrinkle: Flash-based games are likely to be around for a long, long time. But they probably won't ever run on iPads or iPhones.

It's complicated, and getting more complex every day.

I, for one, will celebrate the day the Web becomes Flash-free, if it happens this century.

This story, "Say good-bye to Flash, but is HTML5 winning?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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