Flash, after starting out its life as one of the bevy of animation plugins for browsers back in the day. has become synonymous with online video. It’s also got a rather terrible reputation for using an inordinate amount of system resources to accomplish this feat, something which hasn’t gone away even in the latest versions. Indeed even my media PC, which has a graphics card with accelerated video decoding, struggles with Flash, it’s unoptimized format monopolizing every skerrick of resources for itself. HTML5 sought to solve this problem by making video a part of the base HTML specification which, everyone had hoped, would see an end to proprietary plug-ins and the woes they brought with them. However the road to getting that standard widely adopted hasn’t been an easy one as YouTube’s 4 year road to making HTML5 the default shows.
Google had always been on the “let’s use an open standard” bandwagon when it came to HTML5 video which was at odds with other members of the HTML5 board who wanted to use something that, whilst being more ubiquitous, was a proprietary codec. This, unfortunately, led to a deadlock within the committee with none of them being able to agree on a default standard. Despite what YouTube’s move to HTML5 would indicate there is still no defined standard for which codec to use for HTML5 video, meaning that there’s no way to guarantee that a video you’ve encoded in one way will be viewable by HTML5 compliant browsers. Essentially it looks like a format war is about to begin where the wider world will decide the champion and the HTML5 committee will just have to play catch up.
YouTube has unsurprisingly decided to go for Google’s VP9 codec for their HTML5 videos, a standard which they fully control. Whilst they’ve had HTML5 video available for some time now as an option it never enjoyed the widespread support required in order for them to make it the default. It seems now they’ve got buy in from most of the major browser vendors in order to be able to make the switch so people running Safari 8, IE 11, Chrome and (beta) Firefox will be given the Flash free experience. This has the potential to set up VP9 as the de facto codec for HTML5 although I highly doubt it’ll be officially crowned anytime soon.
Google has also been hard at work ensuring that VP9 enjoys wide support across platforms as there are already several major chip producers whose System on a Chip (SoC) already supports the codec. Without that the mobile experience of VP9 encoded videos would likely be extremely poor, hindering adoption substantially.
Whilst a codec that’s almost entirely under the control of Google might not have been the ideal solution that the Open Source evangelists were hoping for (although it seems pretty open to me) it’s probably the best solution we were going to get. I have not heard of the other competing standards, apart from H.264, having such widespread support as Google’s VP9 does now. It’s likely that the next few years will see many people adopting a couple standards whilst the consumers duke it out in the next format war with the victor not clear until it’s been over for a couple years. For me though I’m glad it’s happened and hopefully soon we can do away with the system hog that Flash is.