This article is a little bit more technical than usual, but if you watch YouTube, Hulu or Netflix this behind-the-scenes battles over which format gets used is bound to affect us.
Video on the web generally comes in three flavors: Flash, Quicktime or Windows Media. Recently, those with a watchful eye on performance have taken aim at Adobe Flash. In the past, Flash has had its share of bugs and has been known for being resource-intensive, relying on a processor power-draining battery life in the process. Many of us have heard of Apple's refusal to use Adobe's Flash format on their products, instead going with HTML5. HTML5 is the newest web standard that lets web developers create advanced graphics and animations formerly impossible without a third-party browser plug-in like Flash. I'll leave you to decide whether Apple's decision was solely performance-based, but there is certainly evidence to support that claim. There are also recent reports that Apple may be developing their own Flash alternative to support Rich Internet Apps. But HTML5 is only a language to create sites with – the formats for audio and video on a web page can change.
You might ask, "Well, what about YouTube, Facebook or my favorite news site? Don't they use Flash?" Actually, most of the big sites, including Netflix, use the H.264 video compression format that is also used in Blu-ray discs, satellite and cable television as well as real-time video conferencing. If a desired HTML5 video format isn't supported, the web page can fall back to Flash.
H.264 sounds pretty good, but there's one small problem: H.264 is a patented technology – Sony, Apple, Toshiba and others hold patents that govern the use of the codec. For this reason, Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox browser, doesn't like it, and refuses to integrate it into Firefox. Instead, Mozilla has chosen Ogg Theora, a completely open-source, lightweight codec that, unfortunately, does not have the same quality as H.264.
And then along comes Google. YouTube, owned by Google, is slowly converting its entire catalogue from Flash to H.264. Earlier this year, Google acquired the company On2, maker of an efficient, high-quality video compression codec called VP8. VP8 offers H.264 quality delivered at half the normal bandwidth. Google announced that VP8 would be open-source, allowing anyone to use the codec to create web videos.
Is This the End of Flash?
Certainly not in the near future. The more recent version of Flash has been greatly improved and is still a competitor when it comes to battery life and stability. Also, while HTML5 runs great on mobile devices, desktop browsers haven't caught up just yet. Beyond video, there are also a lot of games and other content created in Flash that will live on for quite a while. Eventually, in the end it might not even come down to any technical issues with either product, but instead the general preference of developers and site owners.
Online or Offline
The other argument I often hear is the trend toward web-delivered movies versus their physical counterparts. If we are talking about buying movies, Blu-ray is only slowly taking over DVD, owing to the fact that movie-watchers, while preferring to buy Blu-ray versions of big-budget titles, cannot convince themselves to spend the extra money on the more mainstream titles. We also don't generally buy movies sight unseen, preferring to buy something we've seen before and know we will want to watch again, and renting everything else. Physical media is still more portable, and just like a book, you can give it to a friend, unlike the digital version.
If you prefer renting movies, will movies available immediately on our TV ever completely replace disc rentals or purchases? Netflix's low monthly subscription fee, besides allowing you to receive one disc at a time in the mail, also provides access to their movie collection through many game consoles or other entertainment system.
You can't talk movie rentals without mentioning Redbox. They have about 20,000 kiosks nationwide and are currently dominating the market. If you don't watch movies too often, this might be the better match for you. Not quite as convenient, but they do let you return your movies to any other Redbox machine. Redbox isn't streaming movies to your HDTV or Playstation 3 (not yet anyway), but they have a large customer base that is happy paying $1 per day to rent a movie, rather than paying monthly membership fees for services they might not use.
In my opinion, watching on-demand content is going to keep growing. By the time they present a true threat to their physical media brethren, there will certainly be a new technology that will challenge their own place on the food chain. The only constant is change.
What does this mean for you and me? Not much, actually. At some point, the dust will settle, a victor will be acknowledged and we will move on to the next battle. Until then, watching the behind-the-scenes struggles will be nearly as entertaining as watching those appearing on the screen.