File Under: HTML5, Multimedia

YouTube Embraces HTML5, But Stops Short of Open Web Video

Google is now offering up YouTube videos using HTML5′s next-generation video tag. But this advancement is only available to those surfing with Chrome or Safari — Firefox and Opera users need not apply.

YouTube’s HTML5 video support effectively eliminates the need for Adobe’s Flash plug-in for viewing videos on the site. The move comes in response to a survey where users voted “support HTML5 open web video with open formats” to the top of the YouTube’s feature request list.

Unfortunately for fans of the open web, Google seems to have stopped reading at “support HTML5″ because “open web video with open formats” is entirely missing from the new features.

To test YouTube’s new HTML5 support for yourself, head to the TestTube page and enable the new features for your account. Just make sure you’re using either Google Chrome browser or Safari because those are the only two browsers that support the new features.

The video quality of HTML5 playback (shown below in a screenshot taken with Google Chrome on a Mac) is a little chunkier than the Flash version, but it works. The frame rate is just as smooth and the player controls, which are JavaScript and CSS, operate as you’d expect.

this is a SCREENSHOT

Eliminating the need for Flash means YouTube videos will be less likely to crash your browser and should stop your PC’s cooling fan from turning into a jet turbine, but it doesn’t really advance open video on the web — it just moves from one proprietary solution (the Flash plugin) to another, the H.264 video codec.

While Google’s early support for the new HTML5 <video> tag is a win for HTML5′s vision of a web without plug-ins, unfortunately Google’s HTML5 support also highlights what will be a thorn in the side of open web video for some time: codec compatibility issues.

At the moment, YouTube’s HTML5 video support is limited to web browsers that support the H.264 video codec — namely Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari. Because the W3C declined to specify a standard video codec to go along with new video element, the choice of codecs to support lies with each web browser.

Browser manufacturers are split into two camps, those that support the free, open Ogg Theora codec (Chrome, Firefox, Opera and others) and those that support the proprietary H.264 codec (Chrome and Safari). Internet Explorer is entirely removed from this debate, as it does not support the video playback capability of HTML5 — in fact, IE support for HTML5 in general is almost entirely nonexistent, even though all the other browsers are racing to build in support.

Google’s decision to start with the H.264 codec is disappointing since Mozilla and Opera have declined to pay the expensive licensing fees for H.264 and instead support Ogg Theora for open video on the web.

What makes Google’s choice of video codec even more regrettable is that the Ogg Theora codec (a free, open video codec) works in Google Chrome, Firefox and Opera. Had Google opted to support Ogg Theora, only Apple would have been left out of the fun.

Furthermore, the latest version of Firefox — version 3.6, which was ironically released within hours of Google’s YouTube announcement — expands the browser’s ability to play videos using proposed HTML5 standards, including support for fullscreen playback. But Firefox’s video capability is limited to Ogg Theora.

However, there may be a simple practical reason YouTube chose to start with H.264 — it most likely already has most of its videos in H.264. Thanks to the YouTube application for the iPhone and Flash 10′s H.264 support, behind the scenes much of YouTube’s video is likely already in H.264.

Hopefully Google will add support for Ogg Theora in the near future, after all the number-one request in YouTube’s survey wasn’t more HTML5 support, it was “support HTML5 open web video with open formats.”

We welcome this baby step away from web video plug-ins, but keep in mind that we’re still some ways away from truly open, free video on the web.

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