Google dropped a bomb on the online video world last week with the declaration that they will drop H.264 support from their popular Chrome Web browser. This triggered an unsurprising firestorm of debate in the tech community about open vs. proprietary standards — but for the less technically inclined, it elicited the question: what exactly does this mean?
In this article, we’ll demystify the arcane complexities of HTML5, WebM, H.264, and how they’re all tied together. The intended audience is the business person who knows that online video trends will affect his or her business, but doesn’t understand (nor has any desire to understand) acronym-laden technical discussions of codecs and formats.
The battlefield for the emerging H.264 vs. WebM war is the rapidly growing assemblage of Internet-connected devices that can be used to view online video: tablets, smart phones, smart TVs, PCs, laptops, and so on. All of these devices use Web browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer as a conduit when accessing online video. The end-user of such devices may or may not actually see the Web browser while watching online video. But make no mistake about it: the Web browser is there, and it’s an essential component of the software on the device.
When Web browsers were invented in the early 1990s they were only capable of displaying text. Although the ability to display images was added shortly thereafter, no one expected Web browsers to be used for the display of dynamic multimedia content such as digital video any time in the near future. So, simply put, the software developers who built the early Web browsers did not optimise the software to support video playback. To this day, Web browsers are still not optimised to support video playback.
Luckily, software developers had the foresight to enable 3rd parties to extend native functionality of Web browsers via a plugin architecture. This is a fancy way of saying that 3rd party developers can write custom software that “plugs in” to a Web browser, thereby enabling the Web browser to do something it could not otherwise do. An example of this is the Adobe Flash Plugin which provides all major Web browsers the ability to play video. The Flash Plugin is so ubiquitous that most people think the Web browser itself can display Flash video (if they think about it at all), but the fact is that Web browsers can only display video because of the presence of 3rd party plugins. This esoteric distinction may seem trivial, but in fact it is quite significant.
In 2004, the standards bodies who guide the evolution of Web browsers and the software developers who build them began working on a new standard that would add native video playback support to modern Web browsers. In other words: build Web browsers that can display video without the assistance of 3rd party plugins. Everyone has agreed this is a fantastic idea (save, perhaps, the 3rd party plugin developers), and this fantastic idea is generally referred to as “HTML5”.
The problem with the proposed HTML5 standard is that it specifies the what (i.e. modern Web browsers should play video natively without the assistance of 3rd party plugins) but not the how (i.e. which specific video format should be supported by Web browsers). The how is an open question that is yet to be definitively answered.
You can understand the how question by way of analogy. In the very distant past, consumers who wanted to enjoy the latest home video technology were given the choice of two competing analogue formats: VHS and Betamax. In either case, watching video on a tape deck hooked up to the family television was the what while the specific type of physical media was the how. Fast forward to the 21st century: the what is watching online video on a device with a HTML5-compliant Web browser and the how is the specific format of digital media: H.264 or WebM.
To help answer the how question, a number of selfless corporations have thrown their hats into the ring as advocates for their preferred format: H.264 (Apple and Microsoft) or WebM (Google and Firefox). There’s a lot at stake: specifically, vested interest in the format that will ultimately be used by all those Internet connected tablets, smart phones, smart TVs, PCs, laptops, and so on.
You can think of the H.264 and WebM video formats as modern day VHS and Betamax tapes, and think of the Web browsers on iOS and Android devices as the respective tape decks (left as an exercise for the reader to determine which is which). Imagine coming home from the video store with your favourite new move on VHS tape and trying to cram it into a Betamax deck. Wouldn’t exactly work, would it? Well, that’s the same experience consumers will have in the near future as they try to watch H.264 video on Chrome-powered devices, or WebM video on Safari-powered devices. The format wars are alive and well my friends.
So what does this mean to you, the business person who depends on online video as a core part of your business? Quite frankly, it means you’re on the hook to ensure cross-device compatibility for all your video content. Otherwise, your customers will have a poor user experience and, unfortunately, blame you rather than the industry titans that created the incompatibility in the first place. Here’s a real world example: Hulu, arguably the best online aggregator of popular television shows such as Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Office, provides an excellent user experience when viewed from a standard issue PC or laptop. However, try to watch Hulu on an iPad and it just doesn’t work. The reason for this incompatibility, be it licensing restrictions, technology decisions, or anything else under the sun, is irrelevant to the end user. The end user, rightly so, wants it to Just Work, and if it doesn’t work the end user will become disenchanted with the service and go elsewhere.
By way of contrast, consider Netflix. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a device on which Netflix does NOT work. This should be embraced as the model for every business that provides online video to its customers: the video plays everywhere, every time, no gymnastics required.
Of course, this begs the question: how the heck do I do that?!?!? If you were technical enough to know how to solve such an imposing problem, you wouldn’t be reading this article (see paragraph #2 above). The answer, quite simply, is to outsource your video encoding needs to a qualified solutions provider who understands how to make it Just Work.
To be clear: making it Just Work is not easy. The complexities of device compatibility go far beyond the H.264 vs. WebM debate: each device supports different frame sizes, data rates, codec profiles, adaptive streaming protocols, digital rights management frameworks, and so on. The encoding phase of content production – and, to a lesser extent, the delivery – is where all of these things are either done right or done wrong. Doing it wrong means your encoded content may not play back, or – if it does play back – it may look absolutely terrible. We’re not sure which is worse. On the other hand, doing it right means your customers will be delighted rather than frustrated, captive rather than fleeting, which translates to more time and money spent with your business.
Recent technology advances have made high-volume, high-quality video encoding solutions extremely cost effective and efficient. Gone are they days of purchasing expensive, specialised equipment every quarter and maintaining dedicated IT and development staff to keep pace with the latest acronym laden tech jargon that arrives in your news reader every morning. Instead, on-demand cloud encoding solutions are available to significantly lower your CAPEX and OPEX while shielding your business from the ongoing format wars. This will free you up to focus on your core mission: growing your business. That’s what you want to be doing anyway, right?