The Horse Race For Video in HTML5 Continues

Get your scorecards out to track who and why will line up behind which video codec, as the fight for the video soul of HTML5 continues

Another chapter in the "what will HTML5 support" soap opera opened last week with rumors that Google will open source the VP8 video codec. Many outlets were reporting that VP8 is the video codec that runs YouTube. But that is not true. VP8 is actually the code behind On2 Technologies, another web video play which Google acquired just a few months ago. The story goes that Google will support VP8 in You Tube as soon as the open source announcement is made. This would make it an instant standard.

First of all, it seems that everyone has already concluded that HTML5 will indeed be the savior of web video. I am not sure web video needs a savior. Steve Job is perhaps looking for a savior from Flash and the millions of iPhone users and now hundreds of thousands of iPad users sure would like to view the web with video. I don't think Adobe thinks that video support in HTML5 is that important.

Lets do a quick review though for those of you not up on the horses in this race. Then we can look at who is backing them.

1. Ogg Theora is an open source video codec that has recently gathered support to become the video standard or at least one of the video standards in HTML5. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post. Mozilla and the Open Video Alliance are lined up behind this one. There have been concerns raised about the quality of video played with Theora though.

2. Flash - the de facto video and rich media standard currently on the web, Adobe wishes that HTML5 never comes out and that when and if it ever does, it is so watered down and fragmented that it never gathers enough critical mass to displace their closed source standard.

3. H.264 - This proprietary video codec is a long developing standard and is backed by some of the biggest players like Apple and Microsoft (at least superficially anyway). It promises great video quality at low bit rates, but licensing it could be expensive and restrictive.

4. VP8 - The codec Google bought, if open sourced and supported in You Tube it gains instant creditability and following. It could allow the HTML5 folks a middle ground.

In fact you really need a scorecard to track the players, their interests and where they are in supporting what for HTML5. Here are the players and what they may be thinking:

1. Apple - the iPhone and iPad ain't done till Flash don't run. OK Flash doesn't run on them now and will only over Steve Jobs dead, stiff body. But what to do instead of Flash?  Apple has never been known as a big supporter of open source or even open standards. Unless those standards were made in Cupertino and gives Apple some sort of inherent edge that is.  H.264 is the apple of their eye (pun intended). It gets rid of both Adobe and those pesky open source dudes who could mess up Steve's good deal.

2. Google - At first it looked like Google was lining up behind open source Ogg Theora. In fact they had a You Tube HTML5 version that was playing with it.  It made sense. Google supports open source. With Android competing with iPhone OS, it make sense to not go along with Apple here. But now they own VP8. There is no open source like your own open source. If VP8 is the horse that wins this race, Google is both the jockey and the owner. Big win for them. If Theora is the pick, I don't think they will be heartbroken either though.

3. Adobe - If it was up to Adobe they would rather see endless squabbling over which standard to support for the next 10 years. In the meantime they will continue seeing more sites developed using Flash and increasing their stranglehold. But deep down they have to know they are fighting a slow retreat. Whenever HTML5 is done, it will still take years for Flash to dissipate. Adobe will ride that diminishing revenue road for as long as it can.  

Of course they believe if Apple was not such a pain in the butt, no one would care about HTML5. Maybe they can give something to Steve Jobs (I don't think money can do it, Jobs certainly has enough money) that would change his mind this whole HTML5 thing can go back under the rock it crawled out from under.

4. Microsoft - Are they even relevant anymore? Of course they are. They had sugar plum visions of Silverlight being the next generation rich content standard on the web. While I love Silverlight, it is still finding itself in the market. No one knows which way they will really go. The early IE9 release (not even an alpha) had H.264 support. They would hate having to support a Google sponsored standard, so don't look for them to line up behind VP8, but Apple isn't high on their BFF list either. So who knows.

5. Mozilla - They have made their intent clear. They are sponsoring Theora and with enough of a browser share they have seat at the table. But they are not the power on the mobile scene that they are on the desktop. Increasingly this is becoming a mobile world. Not sure how much juice they will carry in this cat fight.

So there you have it. The horses, the jockeys and who is betting on who, for now anyway. Should be interesting to see how this plays out. The sad news is often what happens when so many competing interests are tugging at something like this the result is compromise. In a good compromise no one is really happy. But the ultimate question is will we all suffer as a result?

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