HTML5 Video – Rotten Apple

Forgive me, but it’s a gonna be a long one…

Did anyone else notice Steve Jobs tearing a big-old centrefold page out from Microsoft’s book with regards to the whole HTML5 audio/video codec debarcle?

Just to get this clear, I’m not taking sides on what codec should be used, they both have their advantages and should both be supported in my opinion.

Before: Microsoft approached the PC OEMs and essentially bullied them into not including Netscape with their PCs. Going so far infact to threaten not to license Windows to them if they didn’t comply. (BBC Article) Microsoft successfully decided the future of the internet in regard to browser dominence and the familliar sight of “This site is best viewed in Internet Explorer”. Not to mention the hours of stress they caused web developers the world over, the relentless swearing at IE “quirks” that was to follow.

Now: Apple release a new “revolutionary” internet device, without Flash. This makes the web experience on the device today, less than revolutionary, and infact takes it a distinct step backward. To help alleviate that rather massive shortfall, they propose the all-singing all-dancing HTML5 and it’s <video/> element! Which is all very well and good but content providers are currently using today’s internet “standard” of Flash video. We’ll also temporarily ignore the fact that video isn’t the only thing Flash is used for.

To that end, they approach content providers, eg: Wall Street Journal, and Steve tells them to rewrite parts of their site(s) to accomodate his new device. (ArsTechnica) Just to keep perspective, this is one device, in a veritable ocean of web-enabled devices available to consumers. Or two devices if you really insist on pretending that the iPad is anything new. But Steve really does have the gift of the gab and it wouldn’t surprise me if these big-money content provider executaves swoon to him and do it his way. Maybe they all want to be him or just near him, he seems to be everyone’s favourite CEO lately. If all else fails a couple of hours in the Reality Distortion Field should do the trick.

Apple have decided that they can go ahead and do this because they support an interpretation of the HTML5 Audio and Video spec which is one that would see MP4 (H.264/AAC) used as the official format. Another interpretation would be one that uses Ogg (Theora/Vorbis) used instead. This is still a matter of hot debate.

I’m not going to go into detail on their respective pros and cons because they both have them and the intracacies of patent law quite frankly bemuse me. I swear it only exists to give lawyers something to do. Suffice to say there are good points for both. As it stands, Mozilla Firefox and Opera both support Ogg. Safari, in all it’s incarnations only supports MP4 as does the Android browser. Google Chrome is the only browser so far to support both. (Dive into HTML5) In my opinion they’re the only ones doing it right, but what do I know? If this stalemate continues for much longer then it’s only going to harm HTML5 audio and video.

But if Apple skips the whole formality of actually coming up with a fair compromise and goes straight to the content providers, then they can push the content providers to do it The Apple Way. Effectively they’re trying cut out the middleman and make the decision on behalf of The Internet without the hassle of involving other points of view. That just makes things more complicated, right?

Microsoft used their position of power to push Mozilla aside, now Apple are using their position of hype and popularity to do the same to Adobe. But not only that, also to strengthen the position of the codec they endorse as the future HTML5 video standard. Something that is causing quite a stir at the moment and nothing has been formally agreed thus far.

Now on the matter of Flash itself, I get that Flash isn’t exactly great or rather, the Flash player browser plugins. I use the Adobe Flash player plugin for Safari and Firefox on Mac OS X and Firefox for Linux. On my MacBook Pro, if flash is running, I notice. It gets hot. On linux, it’s just slow. Not slow in itself but it makes Firefox slow. The point is, dispite this, it is ubiquitious on the internet these days. Not because it was forced on anyone, but because there was a toolkit behind it that designers could use. Not developers. The combination of HTML, CSS3 and JavaScript is very developer-centric. Even with frameworks like jQuery or Prototype, it’s still “programming”, which is not a skill that all designers have, and those that do tend to have a reduced programming skillset since it’s not their main priority.

When you consider Flash’s versitility, with the multi-platform multi-browser plugins and the designer toolkit, it’s no wonder it’s in the position it’s in today. It powers the vast majority of the video on the web, as well as all manner of interactive apps like games. – Flash is not just for video.

Getting back to the point…

Apple’s actions are not about whether or not HTML5 replaces Flash for video delivery. That is a convenient side effect. This is about keeping Flash out of Apples precious, and maintaining 100% control over the platform, what code can and can’t be run. But most importantly what users can have for free and what they have to pay for through the App Store. No free flash-powered video, go buy it from iTunes (consumers) or do it our way either through MP4 HTML5 or a native app (content providers)! No free flash games, go buy special Apple-endorsed games from the App Store! You must do it The Apple Way. Don’t forget that doesn’t stop at technicial implementation, but moral standards (TechCrunch) as well. If you don’t endorse something, you don’t have to provide it, but what gives you the right to stop users from doing what they want to, in their own time?

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that when I give someone money, and they give me a gadget, that gadget becomes mine. If I want to throw it on the ground and jump up and down on it, that’s my choice. If I tied it to my dog, that’d be my decision. So why can’t I make my own software choices?

Remember the Commodore 64 emulator app that was rejected because it could interpret BASIC? Gizmodo Story: Fully Licensed Commodore 64 Emulator Rejected By Apple App Store