HTML5: The Future of Online Video?

If you pay attention to online video, chances are you’ve heard of HTML5. It could be the next big technology that will change online video as we know it. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously stated several weeks ago, in his “Thoughts on Flash” letter, that Apple prefers HTML5 video to Adobe’s Flash technology. But what does HTML5 video mean to ecommerce sites? Is it something to embrace, or just another fad?

HTML5 Video: What Merchants Need to Know

What makes HTML5 video special is that it’s built in to the next version of HTML, dubbed “HTML5.” (See “What is HTML 5,” published earlier at Practical eCommerce, for an overview.) Just as today’s HTML standard allows websites to add images to a web page through a simple <img> tag, HTML5 allows web sites to add videos to a website using a <video> tag. Some ecommerce early adopters are moving ahead with HTML5 video, for the following reasons.

  • HTML5 video is currently the only supported video standard on iPhone, iPad, and Blackberry (via BOLT 2.1).
  • HTML5 video will render directly in the email inbox, for some email clients. Since Flash requires a download, it represents a security risk to Internet service providers and has been disabled for years in email.

Why HTML5 Video Is Important

Ecommerce marketers need to pay attention to HTML5 video today. Failure to do so will not tank a merchant’s online video strategy, but it will limit it.

  • There are 6.4 million active iPhones today in the U.S. alone. Over 51 million iPhones have been sold to date. That is a significant chunk of potential and current customers that may be unable to see an online retailer’s videos, unless your site uses HTML5 video.
  • The iPad is selling at 250 percent the pace of the original iPhone, with sales as of May 2010 exceeding 2 million units. Clearly, Apple is onto something with its new tablet computer. The iPad, unlike the iPhone, also provides a more shopping-friendly user interface, with a larger screen that makes it easier for those with clumsy thumbs to purchase online.
  • HTML5 is an open standard now embraced by all the major browser providers, include Google, Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera.

Arguments Against Implementing HTML5 Video

There are those in the industry who would argue that HTML5 video isn’t yet ready for prime time. While these detractors may be correct in stating that HTML5 video hasn’t yet fully gelled as a standard, the larger point is missed: HTML5 video is supported today and it is here to stay. Among the common arguments used to advocate against using HTML5 video are as follows.

  • While iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, and email represent exciting new markets for ecommerce, they’re only a small slice of the overall video-enabled web universe. Even the HTML5-compliant web browsers (currently, Firefox 3.6+, Chrome 3+, Safari 3+) all support Flash video. In other words, not supporting HTML5 video might limit the marketable universe, but it doesn’t prevent ecommerce sites from reaching the majority of customers with Flash video today.
  • Simply placing a <video> tag on your site and pointing it to a video won’t necessarily work. HTML5 videos must be built, or “encoded,” using a software program called a video codec. Today, there is no industry-wide consensus on what video codec should be the standard for HTML5. This requires ecommerce sites that want to reach the widest audience through HTML5 video to implement support for multiple technologies, until a single standard emerges.
  • There are U.S. patent issues surrounding the use of the most popular HTML5 video codec, H.264. These issues could potentially require ecommerce sites to pay to license the patents in H.264 video in the future.

HTML5 Video Will Prevail

This article does not dissect the benefits and drawbacks of video codecs. That is the subject of an entirely different piece. While there are drawbacks to using HTML5 video, none of them are strong enough to impede the progression of HTML5 video, for the following reasons.

  • The march toward mobile is a trend that ecommerce sites ignore at their peril. With the shopper-friendly iPad, coupled with iPhone, Apple’s decision not to support Flash video creates real-world implications for online retailers that use video, as consumers who access retailers’ sites via iPhone and iPad won’t see Flash-enabled video.
  • The lack of support for a unified HTML5 video codec can be solved using technical means. Likewise, a “dual standard” for online video, comprised of Flash video and HTML5 video can be managed using technology, making it potentially a non-issue.
  • The patent issues surrounding HTML5 video’s most popular codec, H.264, are the most worrisome. The organization that manages the H.264 U.S. patent portfolio has recently announced that the codec will be free until Dec. 31, 2015. After that, observers are not sure what will happen. But other codecs will emerge (such as Google’s recently announced WebM codec), or the patent issues surrounding H.264 could become irrelevant. (See Engadget’s overview article on the issues regarding the H.264 patent issue.)


HTML5 video is here today and it is here to stay. If you are a retailer publishing online video, you need to be thinking about HTML5.

Justin Foster
Justin Foster
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