H.264 Is A Codec, Flash Is A Platform: One Can’t Kill Off The Other

Over the weekend I read another few dozen articles on the whole Apple and Adobe debate and probably read through a thousand comments. Some of the posts I read were really good, but far too many people are comparing codecs (H.264, VP8), platforms (Flash) and languages (HTML5) as if they are all the same thing.

There are lots of posts talking about open standards and making statements on how H.264 is going to kill off Flash. The problem with these statements is that H.264 is a video codec. That's it. It's not a platform of any kind like Flash is. H.264 video has to be played back in a wrapper or by a web browser. The Flash player supports playback of H.264 as long as it has the proper wrapper, which most people either don't know, or simply aren't mentioning. H.264 is not going to put Flash out of business because it can't. It's not a substitute for Flash and is not a platform like Flash. The Flash video platform includes an entire ecosystem for video that includes a player, server and technology for things like content protection (DRM).

If we want to debate the relevance of H.264 to Adobe, then the debate should only be about what H.264 is, a codec. The codec discussion involves H.264, VP6, VP8 and Ogg Theora, the four main video codecs that exist today. Based on what we have seen from content owners over the past eighteen months, there is no question that H.264 is getting a lot of traction and content owners are moving away from VP6 in favor of H.264. That's been clear for some time, which is why Adobe's player has supported the playback of H.264 encoded video since August of 2007.

Another misconception about H.264 is that it does everything all the older codecs do, yet that's not true. Because Flash and Silverlight are platforms and not a codec, their ecosystems include the ability to do things like protect content. Encoding content in H.264 doesn't provide content owners with the ability to take advantage of DRM and H.264 does not support the ability to do adaptive streaming like the Flash and Silverlight platforms provide.

While we're seeing a lot of traction with H.264, it's still not the one codec to rule the world. In fact, we will never have just one codec for a multitude of reasons. While H.264 is great for high-quality video, it's a poor choice for content that's encoded at a lower bitrate with the intention of reaching a wider audience. There is a lot of legacy content that's already been encoded in VP6 that content owners are not willing to re-encode into H.264.

I've seen some argue that these content owners should get with the times and just move to H.264, but not every content owner is targeting an audience capable of getting HD quality video. And while I read one article that said, "no one is really going to go digging very far back into your files if it’s more than six months old", for many content owners, that could not be further from the truth. I've seen a lot of people commenting that content owners should always use the best and most "open" video technology on the market, but with that argument, then these same customers should also drop support for H.264 in three weeks when Google makes VP8 available. Let's be realistic.

The real topic to discuss is what will happen when Google open sources VP8 and then tries to challenge the H.264 codec. While VP8 was never made public when it was under the domain of On2, if the claims that On2 made are accurate, VP8 produces better video quality than H.264 "with data savings of more than 40%". If that is the case, it's going to be very interesting to watch the battle between H.264, which Microsoft and Apple are promoting versus VP8, which Google will be promoting. But all of this debate about codecs really has nothing to do with Adobe. Adobe does not have a codec at stake. Personally, I think Adobe should have purchased On2 back in 2008 when On2 was really struggling and their stock was at a five year low. Doing so would of given Adobe control of VP8 instead of Google, but Adobe chose not to get into the codec business.

So the real debate with H.264 has nothing to do with Flash, but rather with the browsers that support and play back video. Microsoft has said they will only support H.264 in IE9, but we have to remember that IE6 still has close to 10% market share and the browser is nine years old. Looking at my own traffic stats for my blog, nearly 15% of my traffic each month comes from viewers using IE6. Like it or not, that's reality. So the idea that H.264 video playback in a browser that supports HTML5 is somehow going to work for all viewers overnight is simply not the case. How many Internet viewers will have an HTML5 compatible browser in the next two years? Not as many as some seem to think.

In addition, many of the companies that make the browsers do not agree on which video codec should be supported within the HTML5 framework. There is no standard video codec that has been agreed upon when it comes to playing video back in a HTML5 supported browser.

Of course, consumers don't care about any of this. They simply want video to work, for the quality to be good and for things to be simple. But that's not the way the online video industry has ever worked. With all the back room fighting that's taking place between Apple, Adobe and soon to be Google, it appears evident that the real battle amongst these companies is only just starting.