Apple, Adobe grapple over the future of web video

The battle between HTML5 and Flash to be the dominant means for video playback on the Web is nothing less than epic.

With major culture and technology players like Steve Jobs looking to bend the entire Web to their will, companies like Adobe, Microsoft and Google trying to keep up and thousands of users posting in a debate so rancorous you’d think you were watching a discussion about health care, this war could leave everyone worse for wear.

Jobs brought the heat when he decided Apple mobile devices (the iPad, iPod and iPhone) wouldn’t support Adobe’s Flash, then the dominant playback software, which had come to offer users dependable DRM (digital rights management). Instead, Jobs said Apple’s devices would land solidly in the HTML5 camp for video playback — even though, at the time of this announcement in early 2010, the open design of HTML5 didn’t offer content providers much at all in the way of DRM.

The Apple chief justified his decision in an open post on the company’s website entitled “Thoughts on Flash,” in which he dismissed Flash as a closed, proprietary technology that gobbled up too much of the CPU’s resources and compromised battery life.

Asked if this kind of dramatic, line-in-the-sand posture from Jobs surprised the makers of Flash, Adobe senior director of product management Jennifer Taylor laughed.

“Well, that’s Steve,” Taylor said. “We think it’s unfortunate that he made that decision, because then users aren’t getting access to the full technology stack of the Web. We think that the environment will look very different six to eight months from now, and we’re confident that Flash will continue to be successful because of our partnerships with companies like Google.”

Google, like Adobe, has had its technology blocked by Apple every so often. One such impasse was finally resolved when Apple announced on Nov. 17 that it would allow the Google Voice app on the iPhone. Initially, the free app was rejected by Apple, precipitating an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission.

Apple was invited to respond to these comments but declined an interview request.

HTML5’s DRM problem is no small thing, according to Jeremy Allaire, founder of Brightcove and formerly of Macromedia, where he helped design the Macromedia MX (Flash) platform.

“Bottom line, you have to be able to monetize content for this to work for companies,” Allaire said. “So HTML5 might not be an option for a lot of TV networks right now, but I do believe HTML5 will catch up because Apple has invested so much in supporting it and the open code does attract developers.”

Fox, CBS, ABC and NBC all either declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to repeated interview requests to discuss HTML5 and Flash for this report, which was being researched and written as Fox and Disney decided to block their shows from being shown on Google TV.

“They’re probably blocking Google to see if there’s a deal to be made,” Allaire said. “All the traditional models of content distribution have changed, and they’re trying to figure out how to distribute their content and make money in this new environment.”

Google didn’t respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this report.

In addition to the unresolved issues surrounding DRM and HTML5, the claims that Flash floods CPU and compromises battery life are undercut by research done by streaming video expert Jan Ozer. In testing both Flash and HTML5 on Mac and PC platforms, he found that when Flash was able to access the hardware acceleration that it needs, it sometimes outperformed HTML5. Interestingly enough, at the time the iPad was released, Apple was blocking the ability of Adobe Flash to do so.

Not surprisingly, Ozer is convinced Apple’s decision to block Flash wasn’t entirely about the technology.

“I think you have to see this as Apple making strategic decisions to protect its iTunes store revenue,” Ozer said. “If you’re streaming content using Flash, then maybe you’re not buying it at the iTunes store, so it’s questionable for Steve Jobs to criticize Flash for being a proprietary technology when iTunes is clearly a proprietary technology.”

Apple’s stance also created significantly more work for sites like YouTube and Vimeo. In order to meet their users’ playback needs, their coding work could easily be doubled or tripled if they want to appear on Apple’s many mobile devices. And they absolutely do want to be on them.

“You want your users to be able to playback video on any device they’re using, so we do the extra coding because it’s important to be on the iPad and the iPhone,” said Vimeo g.m. Dae Mellencamp. “Our users probably don’t care whether it’s HTML5 or Flash. We only hear complaints if something doesn’t work.”

That’s also the position of Netflix, which uses Microsoft Silverlight — yet another player — on the Web but also exists as an app for Apple’s mobile devices. Of course, the caveat for Netflix is that it’ll only use a technology that can guarantee its content suppliers the kind of DRM that makes everyone happy.

“Filmmakers spend a lot of time and money to make a movie, a company spends a lot of money to advertise and distribute the movie, so they’re understandably interested in protecting their content,” said Steve Swasey, VP of corporate communications for Net-flix. “We’re using Silverlight because it offered us a strong digital rights management capability.”

Silverlight also played a big part in the Web broadcast of a major sporting event.

“In the case of the 2010 Winter Olympics, the host nation and many others exclusively used Silverlight to deliver the online experience with exceptional results for concurrent viewership, ad monetization, quality and audience compared to traditional broadcast medium,” wrote Brad Becker, director of product management at Microsoft in an email interview.

Though Jobs’ description of Flash as inferior technology isn’t clearly supported, the pull of Apple’s mobile devices on the shape of the Web is quickly becoming clear. A recent survey by media search website MeFeedia showed that 54% of Web video is now available for playback in HTML5. In January, the amount was estimated to be about 10%. While Flash still remains the leading player for desktops, mobile devices are powering the adoption of HTML5 video, according to MeFeedia.

No doubt some still remember Apple as the little company that dueled with Microsoft decades ago, but the company’s ability to dictate the direction of technological progress is something even Ozer clearly admits, even if HTML5 didn’t outperform Flash in all his tests.

“Apple is always a special case,” Ozer said. “They’ve distinguished themselves in the marketplace by making some really cool products that people love to use. It’s hard to fight that.”

Related links:
Rhetoric aside, what do the numbers say about Flash?

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