Say It With HTML5

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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Video on the web has become as ubiquitous as fast food on the high street. Chances are most web users will watch at least a few videos per week online. Whether it's a full length TV show using on the BBC's iPlayer, an interview feature here on Article19 or something terrible on YouTube.

This widespread availability of video may lead some to believe that delivering the moving image on the internet is easy for websites like Article19 and all the others.

That belief however couldn't be further from the truth.

Allow us to explain.

Up until about 10 days ago video on Article19 was delivered using a format called QuickTime (developed by Apple). QuickTime is a so-called "plugin". This means you, the user, have to download a separate piece of software to plug-in to your web browser (Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, etc) so you can view the videos we publish.

If you don't have the plugin you can't watch the video, it's as simple as that.

The other popular video capable plugin used by the vast majority of web sites is Flash (published by Adobe Software, the people that make Photoshop, among other things)

Websites like YouTube and Vimeo use Flash to playback the vast majority of their content.

Choices Choices

The video above is in HD Flash format, try it and see how it plays.

Publishers have to make a choice as to which video format to use on their site both for the convenience of their users, the technical requirements of their site and the cost and time involved encoding, uploading and serving each video.

The easy choice is to use Flash because it is, by a wide margin, the plugin most likely to be installed on a users computer by default. Since it is more likely to be installed then a user is less likely to be inconvenienced by having to download it.

Flash however does come with a myriad of problems not least of which is when playing high quality video material the plugin uses a lot of computer processing power. Depending on the computer and the operating system you are using you might experience poor quality playback when watching certain videos.

In our tests Quicktime uses 60% less processing power compared to Flash when using an OSX (Apple) based computer.

The QuickTime plugin is also not without its problems. Although it comes pre-installed on all Apple machines the same cannot be said for Windows based computers. The installed user base for the QuickTime plugin is also dramatically smaller than the Flash plugin.

Bizarrely, Apple's own iPhone and iPad devices, which do not support Flash, struggle to support QuickTime video material unless it is prepared in a very specific way.

Codec

Now, QuickTime and Flash are not actually video formats. You should think of them as "wrappers" that encase the actual video material.

All online video is compressed and encoded from its original format using what is called a "codec". This is an acronym for Coder - Decoder.

We encode the video and upload it then your web browser, via a plugin or other means, decodes the video so you can watch it, simple.

The particular codec we use is called H264, what that means is not at all relevant, and up until very recently we encased that H264 video in a QuickTime wrapper to deliver it to our readers.

The Third Way

There is a third way however to deliver video material to users thanks to the developments of modern web browsers and a little thing called HTML5.

Without bogging you all down in inane technicalities, HTML is, simply put, the computer language Article19 uses to display web pages to you and it is now in version 5 of its long and torturous development.

A big part of HTML5 is a zero tolerance for plugins, especially when it comes to multi-media, especially when it comes to video.

All the new versions of Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer and the mobile web browsers used on the iPhone, iPad and some Android based phones, support HTML5. They all support it to differing degrees but that's another discussion and one that you are probably not at all interested in.

These new browsers all support the direct playback of online video material without any plugins at all. As long as the video is correctly formatted then you don't need to download any additional software.

What this means is that we no longer feel the need to use QuickTime to serve any of our video material. In fact all of our HD material has been switched to HTML5. The older videos will be switched to the new format over time.

So that's great, no more plugins, no more hassle, everything will now "just work"?

Unfortunately not. Remember the "codec" thing we talked about before? Well, in their infinite wisdom the makers of the web browsers have all decided to support different codecs for their particular browsers.

Safari, iPhone, iPad and IE9 support H264, Firefox supports something called Ogg Theora (not making that up) and Chrome (made by Google) supports another codec called WebM.

Chrome initially supported H264, and at the time of writing still does, but Google, in their infinite lack of wisdom, didn't like playing with the other children and switched their support to WebM. A format that they, coincidentally, own the rights to.

As a footnote, IE7 and IE8 don't support HTML5 video at all.

The video above is in H264 format using Sublime Video Player

Same Old Problems

So for us, here in TheLab™, what does this mean? Well the HTML5 specification makes it really easy for us to serve up the video that works on the browser you are using.

All we have to do is create a video in each format and all will be well. So if we take the bgroup video 'The Lessening of Difference' as an example we just need to create an H264 desktop version, and H264 mobile version, an OGG Theora version, a WebM version and a Flash version (for IE7 and 8).

Instead of creating 2 versions (H264 desktop and H264 mobile) we now have to create 5 versions which would dramatically increases the amount of time it would take to create a feature to say nothing of the uploading time and the storage costs. You can't store video online for free you know!

So how is HTML5 helping us out then, why not stick with QuickTime?

Step forward a small company called Jillion and their brand new service modestly titled "Sublime Video Player".

This player is a so-called "cloud" service which means that the video player itself is not stored on Article19's web server at all. Every time you load one of the videos in the HD section the player is actually loaded from Jillion.

Why do this?

First of all it means that the player itself stays constantly up to date and nobody, especially the user, has to download anything. No plugins, no updates, no nothing.

Secondly, thanks to some clever coding the player will automatically detect which browser or mobile device you are using and make the video play.

Here in TheLab™ all we have to do is make our usual two versions of the video (H264 Desktop and H264 Mobile) and the Sublime player does the rest.

In our tests it works seamlessly across all browsers and mobile devices no matter what their level of support is for HTML5 or particular video codecs.

All Is Well

Sadly all is not well. The Sublime Player is very clever but really what it's doing is trying to sort out the mess that is video format support across different web browsers and mobile platforms.

If you look at our videos in Firefox then the Jillion player has to apply a Flash wrapper around the H264 video to make it play because Firefox doesn't support H264 and we don't support OGG Theora. We don't support it because, to be blunt, it's crap. The same goes for IE7 and IE8.

It also adds another layer of complexity to watching video material. The player has to be loaded from a server that is not under our control. If Jillion's server goes down then the player will not load and you can't watch video material.

HTML5 and Sublime Video also can't fix the myriad of idiosyncrasies of the web when it comes to delivering content to your computer from a remote web server located thousands of miles away.

There are still a lot of things that can go wrong which might stop you from watching a particular video and, sadly, there's not a whole lot we can do about it.

[ Jillion 'Sublime Video' ]


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