Alex returns with Part 2, wherein he covers improving browser compatibility and why video streaming is harder than it should be.
Part One was about browsers vs. operating systems, a mysterious Firefox upgrade, and changing default browsers. Browser compatibility is next: All of them are improving, and that’s great for both users and developers.
I Do Believe It’s Getting Better
Remember when browser compatibility was a big headache? Html5test.com does, and provides a point score to boot. Firefox 39 scores 467 of 555 points; Chrome 44 scores 526; Safari 9.0, 400 (See results here). A closer look at the compatibility issues for Firefox shows many are with form input types—not a dealbreaker for many—but in general, browsers have improved hugely in the last few years.
That plan relies on stable, known, well-understood browsers on each target platform, browsers which execute code quickly and reliably, without too many versionitis headaches. It will be most prevalent for free (as in free beer) apps, ones that don’t require local hardware access, store their data in the cloud, and never have in-game purchases.
And then? Will the browser-as-app revolution bypass the app stores entirely, even for non-free games and productivity tools? Probably not. Both Apple and Google make quite a bit of money via their app stores, so they aren’t going to look kindly at any bypass movement. Developers, too, know exactly what royalty rates they’ll earn. Users are familiar with the current purchase methods and won’t be persuaded to change easily.
Users also look at app store certification as a mark of quality (Rightly or wrongly). Apple, especially, will look unkindly at any browser-based not-an-app that requests local hardware access, and clamp down on non-App Store plays. There are already self-load and side-load apps for Android (straight apps, not browser based); Apple makes this very difficult without rooting your iOS device.
Summary? Download-and-install-yourself will continue as the dominant model for PCs and Macs—even outliers like Salesforce have downloads for Chatter and local file replication. On mobile, expect the app stores to be the standard purchase method, even if they’re HTML5 in a local-code wrapper, for at least two more years.
Replacing Flash and H.264: A Look Into the Crystal Ball
Under the covers, my remaining computer slowdowns and mysterious stoppages may be an interaction between Flash and Chrome. So far, using Firefox instead, they’re minimal. What caused them?
For nearly everyone, Flash means video playback, particularly for Youtube and Facebook. (Yes, there are Flash games, but ever fewer.) Can you live without the Adobe Flash plugin?
In the future, yes: You’ll click on a link to an HTML5 video, played by the browser itself. No plug-in, and it’ll Just Work. The HTML5 web specification is specifically designed for video playback, natively, within a browser; no plugins to separately update. First introduced by Opera Software in 2007, it’s been The Next Thing to replace Flash video for nearly a decade, but progress has been slow.
Background: HTML5 video (Using the <video> tag) is a container, a video element for the web, not a playback format or encoder standard; the most popular HTML5 encode formats are MPEG-DASH and H.264. That difference, between container/file format and encoding, confuses many. For instance, if you save a Flash video on your computer, it’s probably a .FLV extension, but inside it might be a Sorenson Spark, VP6 or H.264 encoded file. Flash itself opens the file, reads a header, and loads the correct decoder to play back the video. All that works automatically, except when it doesn’t.
(Results are from Firefox 44 on MacOS 10.10.4; I suspect yours will be similar.)
Notice the Codec list: Each is a separate option. Notice also that WebM, an open-source media file format appears fully supported.
YouTube has been promising universal HTML5 video playback Real Soon Now for several years; time to check on progress. Compare the above to the YouTube HTML5 Video Player detection page for the same system:
(Note that HTML5test believes WebM VP9 playback is supported, while Youtube doesn’t.)
Your browser probably supports basic HTML5 video playback; try this link.
Do videos play in Flash or HTML5 format? Open YouTube, select a video, let it auto-start, check the format by right-clicking, see whether it’s the HTML5 or Flash player. Some videos (Especially from Vevo) attempt to play as HTML5, they fail, then, upon reload, play automatically as Flash.
Can I force HTML5 playback? Disable Flash on Firefox on the Mac, restarting, go to YouTube and attempt to play a video. It shows… black. Right-clicking shows the embedded video is indeed shown as HTML5, but it’s both silent and dark. As for Facebook, with Flash disabled, clicking on an embedded video shows a banner suggesting you download the latest version of Flash—no HTML5 playback yet.
These are playbacks from the Mac browser, not mobile clients. Facebook has their own apps for iOS and Android, handling video playback directly. Unsurprisingly, YouTube (Owned by Google) is a native Android app; it’s also a very popular app for iOS.
Back on the Mac, all is not perfect. If a link opens a webpage which is neither Facebook nor Youtube, embedded Youtube links therein do not play. You must copy the Youtube URL, copy that to the browser, load Youtube itself, then play. This took some persistence to learn.
Still, for Youtube and Facebook, I finally have reliable Flash video playback within Firefox 39. Google Chrome plus MacOS is still a problematic combination, so I don’t use it. Still, it’s progress—I have one browser I don’t have to close, should I wish to actually be productive—and I’ll take it. Arguably, I would have gotten more work done by not updating Firefox to work with Flash in the first place, but that’s a personal problem.
Video Formats and the Future
Many smart people have continuously improved digital video quality—more quality at any given bitrate—for several decades. Anyone who watched Video CDs (VCDs), with their ghastly, blocky, low quality look in MPEG-1 format, remembers how far we’ve come. Yes, we’ve got far more bits-per-second to watch, but encode efficiency has increased, too.
The latest CODEC is HEVC, High Efficiency Video Coding, alias H.265, 20% to 50% more efficient than the current H.264 standard, and over three times as efficient as MPEG2. Mostly, HEVC will be used to push 4K and higher resolution video via pipes as small as 8Mbps, mostly for online delivery. On the pro side, I don’t see HEVC used as a production format—as in, for moving realtime, low-latency video from camera to switcher via Ethernet—for at least a year.
One of the two formats within HTML5 video, MPEG-DASH (often just “DASH”), dynamically adapts to available bandwidth and to changes in video complexity: If you move from a crummy 3G connection to your home Wi-Fi, picture quality should automatically improve, once this solution works. Hulu’s moving to DASH, though few others have, yet. Expect DASH to appear in mobile playback products, where adaptive-rate playback will be the most valuable.
HEVC will also be delayed a bit, before it hits volume use; there’s no single patent pool yet agreed upon for the rights, and there’s tussling (Not yet lawsuits) about royalty rights. As for containers, HTML5 will, presumably, be the delivery method, replacing Flash. Certainly, that’s the fervent wish of the streaming community, if Streaming Media Magazine is any indicator.
But that’s all at least 12, more likely 24, months in the future. Until then, you will see a patchwork of formats: More Flash updates (Currently on version 18), more Flash security vulnerabilities, slow adoption of the HTML5 video standard, MPEG-DASH and WebM appearing, then a slow delaying action by Adobe as Flash fades away.
Next time, it’s on to Apple Mail and Spotlight, then installation of a Solid-State Disk (SSD) in the Mac. Your thoughts for future installments are also welcome.
What do you think? Your comments are welcomed, along with ideas for new subjects for Alex and the other Advisors. And if you have a story to tell, start here.