The Future of Flash Video
by, 6th Mar 2010 at 01:14 (24063 Views)
Whenever I get the chance (like now) I like to boast about how I predicted the success of Flash video back when it was widely considered a non-starter. As soon as it was possible to construct a viable Flash player I did so. My first attempt was in Flash 5 and it eventually became the MC Media Player. Unfortunately I wasn't aggressive enough with my development or marketing (and my mediocre coding skills probably didn't help), so I watched as others took the idea much further and did much better than I did. I cry when I think about it. But that's another story.
Importantly, my faith in Flash had nothing to do with video quality. Flash was a dramatic improvement for webmasters - it allowed us to easily add a single video player that worked equally well on all major platforms. It also provided much more flexibility and customization options than any other format. Of course, to succeed it also had to be better for end users and it was - videos just appeared on the web page and users no longer needed to care about formats and plugins.
In short, the player is more important than the video quality.
Of course Flash went on to became the dominant web video format, thanks largely to support from sites such as Youtube. The old days of the "big three" being Windows Media, Quicktime and Real Media are ancient history.
Now, in 2010 I find myself having come full circle and wondering if Flash video is nearing the end of its era. This time I'm not in the minority though and here's why...
Flash is proprietary. This isn't a show-stopper (most other major web formats are proprietary) but it does attract a lot of resistance from both open-source advocates and commercial competitors. No-one likes paying licence fees and free alternatives obviously have an advantage. This will become more of an issue with HTML5...
HTML5 is coming. Most of the big browsers are backing HTML5, which was originally planned to include a standardized video specification. Unfortunately no suitable codec was settled upon and HTML5 is going ahead, at least for now, without defining a specific video format. However it does include a <video> element that allows embedded videos without the hassle of using a player (as you have to with Flash video). The player is instead built using HTML and CSS.
When it comes to video, HTML is moving towards more standards-compliance with a strong preference for open-source/patent-free. That's not good for Flash, WinMedia, Quicktime or any of the others.
Google likes HTML5 and open source, and has moved into the video codec business. Google now owns On2, the company behind many successful video codecs (ironically including VP6 - the codec that was adopted by Adobe and made Flash video what it is).
Interestingly, back in 2001 On2 released their VP3 codec as open-source after losing a battle against H.264. VP3 went on to become one of the current leading open-source video formats in OGG/Theora, and is currently the leading open-source option for HTML5. There has also been some speculation about Flash supporting OGG and a few interesting projects to make it happen.
Anyway, I think it's reasonable to expect Google to start using its own codec on YouTube with HTML5 (supported by Chrome and maybe other browsers). I also expect Google to release a codec (e.g. VP8) as open-source in the hope that it will do better than Theora and be accepted into the HTML5 spec. If that happens it's hard to imagine how Adobe/Flash could respond. They will certainly need to include support for the codec in Flash. Perhaps Adobe's best strategy is to forget about promoting their own preferred formats (flv, f4v, etc) and instead concentrate on providing a platform to make advanced players. To some extent they've already done this by supporting H.264. In future, webmasters who want a simple option can use the <video> element; those who want bells and whistles in their video players can still use Flash.
However I'm not sure how far that approach can work either. I've had a look at YouTube's experimental HTML5 player and I'm impressed. At first glance it appears very similar to the Flash player and most users would probably not notice the change. Vimeo has also rolled out an HTML5 player which is virtually indistinguishable from the Flash version.
On the downside, video playback is a little shonky and the video quality often seems poor compared to Flash. However I think these are only a temporary problems.
Flash isn't welcome on iPhone, iPad & other devices. As if the situation wasn't already bad enough for Flash, there seems little hope that it will work on many mobile devices (some say impossible). That's a very serious problem for Flash, arguably the killing blow.
So in summary I think it's safe to say that Flash's native video formats (flv etc) are terminally ill. Flash is likely to remain an option for advanced webmasters needing customization beyond the capability of HTML5, or who want to keep their applications closed-source. For most webmasters though, HTML5 players will eventually become the standard way to deliver online video.
When will this happen? When Internet Explorer begins supporting the <video> element. (The other big browsers already do.) There's still no official announcement from Microsoft but a launch target for IE9 should be announced in 2010. Although I wouldn't put anything past Microsoft, I don't think they can ignore the <video> element, so I expect HTML5 video to gain a lot of momentum in the second half of 2010 and become the preferred option for most new applications in 2011.