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Google: Flash stays on YouTube, and here's why

HTML5 doesn't cut it

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Google has confirmed that Adobe Flash will continue to "play a critical role" on YouTube, saying the fledgling HTML5 video tag doesn't meet the site's needs.

"It's important to understand what a site like YouTube needs from the browser in order to provide a good experience for viewers as well as content creators," reads a Tuesday blog post from YouTube software engineer John Harding. "We need to do more than just point the browser at a video file like the image tag does — there’s a lot more to it than just retrieving and displaying a video."

For more than a year, Google has publicly backed HTML5 and other web standards as the future of computing applications. Since January, the company has offered an "experimental" HTML5 player on the site. And it's now encoding videos with its newly open sourced WebM codec, designed to be a royalty-free means of encoding video for use with the HTML5 video tag. But Harding makes it clear that Google has no intention of pulling Flash from the site anytime soon.

The primary problem with HTML5 video, Harding says, is that browser makers have yet to agree on a standard codec. Though Google, Opera, and Mozilla are firmly behind WebM — based on VP8 codec Google acquired when it purchased video compression outfit On2 Technologies — it seems that Apple and Steve Jobs have no intention of making the switch from H.264, the patent-backed codec licensed by the MPEG LA. Meanwhile, Microsoft is sticking with H.264 on its upcoming IE9, though the company says it will allow surfers to use WebM if they install it on their own machines.

Apple and Microsoft are both members of the H.264 patent pool, and the MPEG LA has indicated it intends to create a new patent pool that would attempt to license WebM, challenging Google's efforts to make it royalty-free.

As the two camps battle it out, YouTube will continue to use ... H.264. This is the codec that backs Flash video, and YouTube has been encoding in H.264 since 2007. "First and foremost, we need all browsers to support a standard video format. Users upload 24 hours of video every minute to YouTube, so it's important to minimize the number of video formats we support," Harding writes.

"Concerns about patents and licensing have prevented some browsers from supporting H.264; this in turn has prevented the HTML5 spec from requiring support for a standard format. We believe the web needs an open video format option. One that not only helps address the licensing concerns, but is also optimized for the unique attributes of serving video on the web. To that end, we’re excited about the new WebM project."

Er, well, this we knew.

Google could surely advance the WebM cause by switching YouTube to the format entirely and moving the site to HTM5. But Harding says the company is unwilling to do so, thanks to several limitations with the <video> tag. HTML5, Harding says, is limited when it comes to DRM, full-screen video, or camera and microphone access. Plus, it can't do "robust video streaming."

"As we’ve been expanding into serving full-length movies and live events, it also becomes important to have fine control over buffering and dynamic quality control," Harding says. "Flash Player addresses these needs by letting applications manage the downloading and playback of video via Actionscript in conjunction with either HTTP or the RTMP video streaming protocol. The HTML5 standard itself does not address video streaming protocols."

And it doesn't allow users to easily lift video from YouTube and embed it in other sites. "Flash Player's ability to combine application code and resources into a secure, efficient package has been instrumental in allowing YouTube videos to be embedded in other web sites," Harding continues.

"Web site owners need to ensure that embedded content is not able to access private user information on the containing page, and we need to ensure that our video player logic travels with the video (for features like captions, annotations, and advertising). While HTML5 adds sandboxing and message-passing functionality, Flash is the only mechanism most web sites allow for embedded content from other sites."

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs has banned Adobe Flash from the iPhone, the iPod touch, and the iPad, while publicly badmouthing the technology. And given its ongoing need for Flash, Google is working to cement the platform's position on other devices. Google's Chrome browser now includes a built-in Flash plug-in that automatically updates with new versions, and the company is now including the player with its Android mobile OS.

You could argue that Google's ongoing Flash support will hamper the progress of HTML5. But at least for the moment, Mountain View is intent on playing both sides. "We’re very happy to see such active and enthusiastic discussion about evolving web standards — YouTube is dependent on browser enhancement in order for us to improve the video experience for our users," Harding concludes.

"While HTML5’s video support enables us to bring most of the content and features of YouTube to computers and other devices that don’t support Flash Player, it does not yet meet all of our needs. Today, Adobe Flash provides the best platform for YouTube’s video distribution requirements, which is why our primary video player is built with it." ®

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