With this week’s headline of “Microsoft ‘worked with Apple’ for Silverlight on iPhone”, we’re once more reminded of the grim reality that is video on the internet. In the article, Microsoft proudly boasts how they use standardized H264-encoded video and a HTML5 video element to serve up video to the iPhone, which would otherwise refuse to play its proprietary content due to lack of a browser plugin.
Since the ages of the first images in web browsers, we’ve been eager to see full-motion video on the web. While it was first normal to let people download video files, often heavily compressed and only playable on specific systems, in the late 1990s, the increase of broadband adoption and standardization of internet protocols allowed streaming video to become commonplace. Flash, Quicktime, Windows Media and Realplayer emerged as proprietary solutions for internet video streaming.
Travel back in time to today, and we’re still seeing a struggle. Flash has become largely dominant thanks to its usage on websites like Youtube, and is almost adequately entrenched to be called a standard. However, when the iPhone was introduced, Google accommodated it by serving up a more open type of video: H264-encoded MP4 files. The interesting thing about this video type is that it’s not just iPhone that supports it; it plays on almost any modern piece of electronics capable of decoding video. The market of desktop video encoding had struggled to find a means of delivering regular (non-streamed) video that could be played on any system, and found MP4 to be an excellent standard.
Back to the article I mentioned earlier. Microsoft is trying to get a piece of the big content delivery cake too, and with Silverlight they are attempting to make something that’s cheaper and more efficient than Flash. Seeing how Flash isn’t even capable of playing video without making my Mac heat up to a comfortable baking oven temperature, I can’t blame them for trying, but what’s so striking about their iPhone-compatibility plugin is that they could easily serve up all their so-called Silverlight-backed videos with the HTML5 video tag and H264-encoded MP4 video files. They won’t, however – they’ll only allow the iPhone to get to the standardized video format. Why?
What we’re seeing is a group of aggressive businesses that want nothing else but becoming the standard for the moving picture on the web. Once settled, they own the way we watch videos online, and thanks to Flash video’s currently overwhelming popularity, you can see how well this works out for us. Linux and Mac users that watch Flash videos online are always confronted with the terribly dysfunctional state of the plugin Adobe offers. In the mean time, Adobe is hard at work to do entirely useless stuff like adding multi-touch to Flash. There is no improvement on the utterly broken state of Flash, because there is no incentive. Until Flash is dethroned as the way most videos are viewed online, we won’t see Adobe even trying to fix the plugins of the less popular platforms or introduce competitive features.
Imagine if this had happened to HTML and the internet standards we take for granted today. Perhaps there would be eight different standards for separating form and content, or stylesheets. Perhaps we’d still require browsers to take a second to determine what type of document was being served up. Quite possibly, 90% of the pages would use a substandard, but ‘good enough’ markup system that was understood by the market-leading browser. Which browser that would’ve been is quite easy to figure out: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Let’s not even begin to think how it would’ve been for Linux and Mac-bound users.
If I were you, I’d start using Clicktoflash on your Mac, as I had recommended earlier, and adopt the HTML5 video tag as soon as you can. The future, and thus the fall of the Video Empire, really can’t come soon enough.