HTML5 Video: You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!Jan 25, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen
A few months ago, we shipped our cross-browser, cross-platform implementation of the HTML5 video tag, using the H.264 codec. In the past week, YouTube and Vimeo announced their support for HTML5 video tag, also using H.264. All good deeds, but unfortunately no good deed goes unpunished. Now we see certain bloggers clucking in disapproval, in essence saying, "H.264 video? You’ll shoot your eye out!"
The most detailed entry of this genus is Chris Blizzard’s post from yesterday. He starts out by raising the alarm (emphasis added):
The players from Google and Vimeo do present a pretty serious problem, though. Each of these require a proprietary H.264 codec to be able to view them. These codecs aren’t compatible with the royalty-free web standards that the rest of the web is built on. … most people don’t understand that something very dangerous is taking place behind the scenes.
He then goes on to assert that the Web grew because of royalty-free, and suggests that permitting HTML5 video to play H.264 will compromise this historical position and lead to a slippery slope.
Let me start by saying that I have nothing against royalty-free codecs; we’ve even published content on this site in Theora (unfortunately nobody played the content, but that’s a different story). But regardless of how idealistic you are about royalty-free codecs,the above line of reasoning has several problems.
For starters,it’s very misleading to say "These codecs aren’t compatible with the royalty-free Web standards that the rest of the Web is built on" or, as Blizzard says elsewhere, "The Web exploded on royalty-free". The implication is that the existence of H.264 codecs is somehow corrupting and endangering the earlier "royalty-free" purity that made the Web grow so quickly.
This assertion is simply untrue. The Web grew from nothing to nearly a billion people, and never used a royalty-free video codec. Never ever. In fact, the existence of all of that proprietary video content is largely to credit for the popularity of the Web.
Again, royalty-free is fantastic, and may even be important for the next wave of growth on the Web. But let’s not mislead people about the role that royalty-free video played in the growth of the Web.
Slippery Slippery Slopes
Next, I think the danger is overstated. It’s far too easy to invent "slippery slope" arguments to support any position, so such arguments should be used with caution. In the case of Ralphie’s "Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time", the warning of "You’ll shoot your eye out!" may have been reasonable. But in the case of H.264 video, I think the "slippery slope" argument goes too far. Chris compares H.264 to the debacle with the GIF image format, but he appears to make the link largely for rhetorical purposes, and ignores the dissimilarities between the two situations.
The Web has depended on proprietary video formats for 15 years, and hasn’t yet been held hostage; it’s not in anyone’s best interest to try. Besides, the last time someone tried to hold the Web hostage, we routed around the situation pretty quickly. We all know how that movie ends, and nobody wants to watch it again.
Bottom line: The Web is now much bigger, with a far more competitive and diverse vendor ecosystem. The idea that someone would try holding it hostage now, let alone stand a chance of succeeding, seems ludicrous to me.
Lose the Battle to Lose the War
Finally, it’s difficult for me to see how refusing to support H.264 in the player will help spread royalty-free content on the Web. Content providers seem perfectly capable of publishing content that uses proprietary codecs, and getting users to install plugins to play that content. I don’t see how any browser vendor can stop this. So this discussion must be limited to codecs supported by the HTML5 video tag.
Apart from the fact that the ship has already sailed, it’s difficult for me to imagine how we would change publisher behavior simply by crippling the HTML5 video tag. In exchange for dumping the H.264 codec, what would the content provider get for switching to the video tag? An HTML tag that’s one character shorter than the object tag? A video player that requires users to install a new web browser instead of a plugin? There seems to be a bit of hubris in the idea that we can control content publisher behavior in this way.
Indeed, if we really believed in such rhetoric, we would boycott media players such as iPods, because they support formats like MP3 and AAC. We can do without music for a few years, while we wait for someone to build a royalty-free replacement codec. After all, it’s for the sake of the ecosystem!
There are many ways to encourage content providers to publish using royalty-free codecs. I’ll even go so far as to predict that content providers will publish more content using royalty-free codecs in the future. But it won’t be because the HTML5 video tag was deliberately crippled, or because people wrote "slippery slope" blog posts.