HTML5 Video: 12 Frequently Asked Questions

Editor’s Note: Many observers believe the new version of HTML, called HTML5, will change online video because of the <video> tag that the new version contains. But, there are many unresolved details involving HTML5 video, and we asked a video expert about some of these. The expert is Russ Somers, director of product marketing with Invodo, an ecommerce video provider.

For an overview of HTML5, see “What Is HTML 5?,” which we previously published.

What is HTML5 video?

Russ Somers: “Until recently HTML (hypertext markup language, the native markup language of the web) didn’t support video displayed natively within the browser itself. Viewing video on the web has always required a plug-in or an additional application for playback. The most common standard for that was Adobe Flash, with Microsoft Silverlight as chief competitor. HTML5, the most recent revision of HTML, supports a <video> tag, which allows the browser to play back supported formats of video without a plug-in. You can summarize HTML5 Video as ‘video that plays ubiquitously in supported browsers without requiring a plug-in.’

Russ Somers

Russ Somers

“’Without a plug-in’ isn’t the same thing as ‘without a codec.’ The HTML5 <video> tag doesn’t mean agreement on a standard codec. Think of agreeing on that <video> tag as agreeing on the syntax of a language, such as English with nouns, verbs and such. To be useful our language needs a common vocabulary, and that’s the codec. It’s commonsense that the supported video format should be royalty-free while offering good compression and quality. Ogg Theora, H.264 and the recently open-sourced (by Google’s WebM Project) VP8 are the codecs for common discussed for HTML5 video playback.

Can merchants use it now?

Somers: “Sure, remembering that (a) HTML5 is still a draft, and (b) keeping the recipients’ platforms in mind. H.264 is a great thing to employ now if you want mobile playback capability, for example. Is it a good idea to use it exclusively or primarily? Not for any markets I’m familiar with. You’ll want to detect browser capabilities and only serve HTML5 content to browsers that can support it, falling back to Flash (or Silverlight) as needed. It comes down to ‘know your customers and their platforms.’ You’re adding substantial encoding work and complexity. As the industry settles on a de facto standard codec, and as adoption of HTML5-compliant browsers and platforms increases, the rewards will increase while the current complexity diminishes.”

What percentage of browsers in use are now HTML5 compatible?

Somers: “The stats change daily. I’ve recently seen claims that 50 percent of the browsers out there are HTML5 compatible, and 26 percent of the web’s videos are HTML5-friendly (mostly H.264, according to Softpedia). Again, remember that HTML5-compatible doesn’t mean any agreement on the codec. Firefox, Chrome and Safari can be compatible (although they may use different codecs), as will Internet Explorer 9. Thinking of the fact that we’re only now getting away from needing to test for IE6, we shouldn’t expect broad compatibility quickly. Technology adoption and standardization can take a while.”

How will the HTML5 video process work?

Somers: “Pretty much like any HTML element, which is why it’s so cool. You’ll create and encode the video much as you do now. To deploy it, you’ll open with the <video> tag, include optional attributes (source of the video, auto play, controls, height, and loop) and close with the </video> tag as expected. If you’re used to HTML, you’ll find it simple. There are some limitations, though. Right now HTML5 video can’t stream and must be HTTP-download, only, giving less flexibility around bandwidth restrictions. You’ll also lack the ability to easily play multiple videos as a playlist, which is standard with Flash-based video.”

Where will merchants store the videos?

Somers: “Just as HTML calls content from various locations today (images from one server, text from another), HTML5 video will work the same way. That means that a merchant’s concerns about hosting and streaming video don’t change with HTML5. It’s still rich, high-bandwidth content. So it needs to be hosted from somewhere, typically a hosting provider or a content delivery network.”

Will the merchant’s site have to have a separate player, or will it play automatically with the <video> tag?

Somers: “If playing the video is all that’s desired, that can be accomplished in the web page. A good retail player, however, does a lot more than that by optimizing for conversion and becoming a seamless part of an ecommerce site. This opens up a clear need for standards-based players, where the experience outside the video panel is driven by standards-based elements like JavaScript, HTML and CSS. That provides a consistent and world-class retail video experience to all viewers regardless of how the video content is delivered.”

What format will the video need to be in?

Somers: “The lack of consistent support for one format means that you’ll need versions for both the Ogg Theora and H.264-supporting browsers. H.264 is where you currently need to focus if you’re concentrating on mobile. Look for that to evolve as Google moves forward with the WebM project, though.”

Can you cite examples of existing sites that are already using HTML5 video?

Somers:YouTube certainly comes to mind, as it has transcoded all its content for iPhone playback. Sites focusing on delivering content, such as magazines, vlogs, are out there delivering this content for the iPad. Retail sites are not moving quite as quickly because, quite sensibly, they want to know what technology their customers will actually use and value before doing lots of encoding work for not-yet-established standards.”

What will the HTML5 video capability do to existing companies whose business is hosting and streaming video?

Somers: “It will grow the opportunity for customer-focused companies. At Invodo, we’re tremendously excited about the opportunities this represents. It’s as if mobile commerce and ecommerce video are both coming of age at the same time and showing the potential to become a dynamic duo. Companies who are willing to take a full-service approach and simplify away the complexities for their customers will do well. Companies who want to stay wedded to a technology rather than a customer need (who think of themselves as a “Flash shop” or “mobile video specialist”) will broaden their business models or fall by the wayside.”

Apple’s CEO says HTML5 video is better than Flash video. Why is this?

Somers: “Steve can be a bit opinionated at times, can’t he? As an idealist he believes in openness. That applies to HTML5 on the web, less so to his operating systems. As a businessperson, he sees the value in driving awareness about and adoption of HTML5 so that it brings value to his iPad and iPhone customers. Remember that concerns about battery life are a big driver of the decision to have iPhone not support Flash. He’s a visionary who’s made better products for a lot of people, so he’s worth listening to.

“But ‘better’ is a subjective term and is determined by the customer. Steve made a better portable music player because it put 1,000 songs in my pocket. He made a better phone because it combined a universe of functionality with ease of use that my 2-year-old gets. I don’t see a clear ‘better’ in that regard for HTML5. Consumers want video that works. Retail sites want video that helps consumers make purchase decisions. Let’s give it to them in whatever format they want to receive it.”

How will HTML5 be implemented on websites? Will the entire site have to be recoded in HTML5, or can webmasters simply insert the new tags, such as the <video> tag?

Somers: “In theory, the new tags can simply be inserted without changing so much as the doctype. I’d test carefully across browsers in those cases, though. If your site has grown organically over time and includes some legacy markup–as most sites do–there could easily be unexpected impacts. You need, as mentioned above, the ability to detect a browser’s compatibility and ensure that you serve content that the browser can access.”

What else do merchants need to know about HTML5 video?

Somers: “The potential is very exciting to have video in anyone’s hands on any device at any time. That’s the promise. The reality is that for the foreseeable future, there will be some complexity to manage. Time spent managing technology is time spent not managing your business. So start with your customers. What do they need, what do they value? How do they shop? Use new technology to solve that problem rather than to do cool things that don’t bring you closer to your customers. HTML5 video in email campaigns is a good example of that type of red herring. Video in the inbox is cool for the minority who can see it. But a simple video player image with ‘click to view video’ drives three times a typical click-through rate and brings visitors to your video on your site, where you can engage them, which is the exact goal of any email campaign.”

PEC Staff
PEC Staff
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