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The Coming War Over Online Video Encoding Standards

Published: 01/02/2011
By: larry

Last Tuesday Google casually announced on it's Chromium Blog that it would be phasing out Chrome support for H.264, the video codec and standard supported by Adobe Flash, Blu-ray, Internet Explorer, Safari and others. Instead, it will be supporting WebM and Ogg Theora, which are supported by Mozilla and Opera.

Ever since this announcement the tech media has been in a dither with explanations and interpretations of what this means and why Google is doing it. At this point everyone is choosing sides and drawing lines in the sand.  I tried to sort this out but I can't. All I can do is to make a few general observations:

  1. This war (Google and Mozilla against Apple and Microsoft) will eventually make our lives as video producers and video consumers more difficult.  We are all caught in the middle.
  2. Consumption of  online video is moving more towards mobile devices everyday so how video is served to mobile devices is a big factor in this war. In fact, this war may be more about control of the mobile video space than anything else.
  3. Apparently Google's announcement doesn't mean that YouTube will stop serving H.264 video, yet. Eventually maybe. YouTube is a "big gun" in this war. No one wants to miss out on those 800,000 cat videos they have on YouTube!
  4. Apple appears to be locked in to H.264 on it's mobile devices. Anyone wanting to deliver video to Apple IOS devices must encode it in H.264. See Chris's comment below regarding which allows you to serve non-H.264 video to IOS devices.
  5. Google claims that Android will continue to support H.264 but this is confusing to me. I don't know what it means for Android to support H.264 and Chrome not to support H.264. Seems like it's the browser that matters.

At this point the whole subject is pretty confusing. The only reason I even bring up the issue is video producers need to track what's going on in this battle so that their video is accessible to everyone. The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.

23 comments on “The Coming War Over Online Video Encoding Standards”

  1. Don't really know what it all means, just wish i could get flash on my iphone... if it is a war then hopefully someone will 'win' and everyone can use the same format on everything.

  2. It's ridiculous really.... gives me a headache. In the end, I assume I will just have to encode every video several different ways to appease the Internet Gods who love to flex their muscle....

    As it is I create a branded and unbranded video and encode each one two times - one in H.264 Flash and one compatible for IOS. What's another encoding process, right? (other than an additional 30-45 minutes of my time....).


  3. This is why I tend to rant about the issues with Apple being so controlling. I feel like it creates a backlash like this. Apple does not want adobe flash. Adobe and Google bite back by refusing to use the apple standard. The consumers, and the makers of the videos are the ones that suffer in the long run. The trick is to make everything as ubiquitous as possible so that the users can use a wide range of devices with out knowing that the experience is custom tailored to each device. That can be quite a challenge.

    Honestly what would be best is if everyone got away from these walled garden computing experiences and just let the users do what they want with their products. More and more these days I find myself jailbreaking, rooting, hacking, or exploiting most of my electronic devices to unlock their full potential. My iPhone is Jailboken to give me what I want. My Nook color is rooted to become an android tablet. All things the device could do from the start but the developers/creates restrict because they want to have control over your experience.

    What I hopes comes from all of this back and forth with the media standards is that they learn to work together. Maybe once it comes to a Mexican standoff and everyone realizes that it is not helping things. Hopefully things will become more open in the future only time will tell.

  4. Another war? But I haven't even dealt with the problem of stills on multiple platforms, let alone video. Oh brother, next I'll have to do specific fonts for IE and Mozilla, and certain colors for apple and android.

  5. "The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from."

    Great closing line!!

  6. "Apple appears to be locked in to H.264 on it’s mobile devices. Anyone wanting to deliver video to Apple IOS devices must encode it in H.264."

    This is incorrect, you can encode in flash (mp4) and use a player that simply falls back to html5 when flash is not detected (on the ipod, iphone)

    There are a few players like this one for example

  7. Sorry, just re read what I posted and just to clarify.....yes, you do need to encode in H.264 (same as mp4), but in doing so you would only have to do it that one time and use a fallback player (videojs etc) and it will make that video file compatible with all browsers and mobile devices.

    (sorry Larry, I should have been more clear)

  8. Much to do about nothing really.

    Firefox and Opera do not support native H.264. So, this will force more flash usage for Chrome users. The big loser in this is HTML5 video. Again, people will look at the numbers and have to make financial decisions. I don't want this to get all wrapped up in Apple/mobile video versus everyone else but it kind of is, here's why. Flash is supported on virtually every browser except apple mobile browsers (I know I will hear about his but it is still an EXTREMELY small amount of users doing mobile video, perhaps 1 percent at most). H.264 would get you native support in Apple mobile/Chrome/IE, flash fallback would get you everyone else, Firefox and Opera. Really you were doing H.264 for Apple support as Chrome and IE could run your video in flash. Some quick numbers - Apple mobile browser is under 1 percent of total browsers (all mobile browsers account for 4 percent so apple accounts for 1/4 of the mobile browser market) in use today, chrome is at 13 percent, IE is 50 percent or more. So, you needed to support, encode flash and a second video encode of H.264 because you felt it was the way of the future and got 64 percent of the market running native H.264. Now the H.264 future looks a little fussy.

    The choices now are;
    -- encode 3 times, H.264, Flash, WebM,
    -- or stay at two H.264 with flash fallback
    -- or do just do flash and get 99% of the market.

    It is only shocking to IPad/Iphone users that most people are staying with option 3, flash only. Think about this, a website with flash video/splash pages/navigation is 50 meg of data, 20 of it in flash, a second encoding to H.264 another 20 meg, a 3rd to WebM another 20. A small 50meg website is now close to 100meg of storage and 3 different sets of code to write and maintain.

    This is nothing but a power play by google. How it turns out is unknown but for now it hurts Apple as the future of H.264 is less clear.

  9. "or stay at two H.264 with flash fallback"
    @ Sandy

    Incorrect, mp4 is supported by Flash 9 and higher, so can double as the Flash source so only 1 encode is needed at the moment (and use a player that has a fallback as i listed above)

  10. @Chris - Wow! As I read more about the HTML5 fall back player you suggested ( it looks like an awesome piece of code that is exactly what video providers need to solve this problem.

  11. @Chris, you are assuming they have a flash player that supports MP4, version 9 release 3 or above. Here's the problem, people using an older version of flash play is close 4 percent on the low end - - and 10 percent on the high end estimates.

    By using MP4 you are losing 4-10 percent of the users, who have a version of flash prior to 9 release 3, to gain under 1 percent or Apple users. That's why the second encode to flv is still required.

  12. @ Sandy

    The flash version will simply ask them to do a 10 sec upgrade if they are using an older version, encoding multiple times is just unnecessary with the arrival of fallback players.

    1. flash 9 came out in 2007....4 years ago, so if you are worrying about the 4% or so who havnt upgraded it I would bet they probably haven't upgraded alot of things (probably still using windows 98 etc)

    2. If you are worrying about the 4% or so who haven't bothered to upgrade to flash 9 in the last 4 years, why not worry about the 4% "undetected" on your stats chart you posted? If your argument is losing 4% of older flash users, it would only make sense to also do something for the 4% undetected from your "stats" wouldnt it?

  13. @ Larry,

    So far it does the trick and makes video content available for everybody without multiple encoding, but unfortunately if/when Chrome does go with WebM we may be forced to encode a second time 🙁

  14. @Chris,

    You like to think of the non-updated user as a low end user. The other way to look at it is a computer purchased in 2006 would be running XP, still extremely usable, and probably used by someone who isn't technology orientated but uses technology. They are afraid of updates. They probably had the computer setup by someone at the store, or paid extra for someone to come and install it in their house. They don't do updates because they "may" run into a problem and they work just fine the way it is. They bought the best and plan on keeping it until they need to upgrade again. This user may be someone who didn't grow up with computers, in their 50's, can afford to purchase the best but doesn't want to fool around with all the problems our technological world causes, they just want to use the computer. I know a few of these people.

    Let's see, people who have enough money to have things done for them most of us do ourselves... no your right, we wouldn't want to have them looking at our videos of real estate.

    All I'm trying to say is we are always working to make our websites accessible to as large a group as possible. Take the names and dates out of the equation and just look at the numbers. We are writing a website with video. We will get 85 percent of browser support either way. A lot of browsers don't support any video. Next we need to make a decision. Do we run both flv and MP4 and add cost? Do we just run MP4 and support an added .4-1 percent of users (86%) or only .flv to add an additional 4-10 percent of users (90-95%), what one are you picking?

    People really have favorites and it is a problem because it clouds their judgment. I could care less about Apple/Microsoft/firefox/Linux/etc./etc./etc.. What I care about is getting max users to view content, period. Right now, that means flv files over MP4 files.

    About your second point about WebM and chrome. MP4 support in Chrome should be no problem because even when they stop supporting H.264 in native mode you will still be able to run it in flash.

    Long post. Sorry about that.

  15. @Sandy

    You say they dont want to upgrade because they might run into "problems"?, umm, the upgrades from adobe are for improved performance and security fixes to address previous "problems"......hence the term "UPGRADE". But hey, maybe those same people will be using windows xp after then discontinue support in 2014...because they dont want to "run into problems"

    That being said, you of course make sure you are not screwing the people with previous technology, BUT, in this case we are talking about a flash update that is 4 years old. I would find it very odd that someone would be using flash from 2006 and have never updated since 97% of the internet uses flash and they would have had to upgrade at some point.

    Not really sure what "having enough money to have something done for them" has anything to do with this, we all use the computers the same way for the most part.

    Last time i checked an internet site doesnt know how much money the person, it still says the same message "to view this content you need flash 9, click here to upgrade".

    And if Miss Sally "I am so rich I have everything done for me" doesnt know whether to get the update Im sure she would ask someone if she really wanted to go on a site....or as you said "have it updated for her"

    In the real world multimedia producers need to get the content to the most amount of viewers (and you must make it apple friendly) while keeping the post production at a minimum. Encoding things 2 times just to hit 4% of people using 4 year old technology is just not good business sense. Do you think its practical to have to encode the any changes to a video that an agent might request 2 times each?, if the agent made 3 changes at different times you have now encoded the product 6 times total, all for the "people who have enough money to have things done for them most of us do ourselves" and are using flash from 5 years ago.....

  16. @Chris,

    No, one encode gets you 4-10 percent of people. .flv files are available to old technology to today's latest and greatest, except Apple. You say, we must make it apple friendly? Look at the numbers? Why?

    That is a second encode for Apple users and we get a whole .4-1 percent of people. So, the extra work is for a total of .4-1 percent of users and we "must make it apple friendly". But, doing nothing gets you a potential of 4-10 percent of users.

    Last post on this and probably on this site. You guys are obviously oblivious to normal users and the diversity on the web. All ready to move to the next great technology because anything a few years old must be little old ladies with blue hair and 100 cats. OY! You really don't understand the average web user and the average age of computer/software installed on systems.

    Well, best to you.

  17. @Scott- The graphic is a drawing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which is sort of symbolic of this apocalyptical war going on between the big tech corporations. I was going to label the four horsemen Google, Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla. But I decided against it. The people being slaughtered on the ground are us (the users).

  18. what was it that Benjamin Disraeli said about statistics?

    All good points Sandy but have you ever worked with RE agents?

    If you have -- have you seen how many of them have iPads (hint -- it's a lot more than 1%)?

    It might only be 1% overall, but it's a very, very important 1%!

  19. I really enjoy the discussion on video on PFRE. Anyone thought about launching a Vimeo Group VFRE? Or is there something already like that?

  20. "It might only be 1% overall, but it’s a very, very important 1%!"

    Exactly. Arguing back and forth about user statistics is pointless if the discussion is not grounded in your specific context. I am not interested in marketing to the entire world. HALF of my real estate clients own and use iPads for work. Seems I may want to make sure that any content I produce is going to work on an iPad then...

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