HTML5, the iPad, and What You Need to Know by Jan Ozer

by Jan Ozer

HTML5 is the next generation markup language that contains a "video tag" that enables browsers to play videos without plug-ins like Flash, Silverlight or QuickTime. HTML5 has recently surfaced as a hot item because Apple shipped the iPad without Flash support, using HTML5 to play videos instead. For this reason, a number of web sites, most famously the New York Times and Time Magazine, have announced iPad compatible sites, and a number of streaming service and product suppliers have announced HTML5 extensions to their products. Unless you parse the press releases and news stories carefully while reading, you'd think that the world was going HTML5 tomorrow.

Basically, though, it comes down to two questions. Should you create an iPad compatible HTML5 site for the small, but rapidly growing iPad installed base, and should you change your main site over from Flash or Silverlight to HTML5.

Should You Consider an iPad-Compatible Site?

At this point, most of the organizations with iPad specific sites are large media shops or high profile consumer brands. The former includes CNN, Reuters, the aforementioned New York Times and Time Magazine, ESPN, CBS, Spin, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, NPR and Major League Baseball. High profile brands include Nike, Virgin America and the White House. You can see a complete list at To be clear, all of these sites are iPod specific sites, these organizations have not adapted HTML5 for their main site. Surf over to ESPN, CNN, or the New York Times and play some video, and you'll see the Flash Player.

  • There are many variables to consider, including:

- Do you care about the iPad as an audience? It feels like the initial buyers are well-heeled, Apple fanatics consumers; if you're serving this audience, you need to consider an iPad site. If you're a B2B manufacturer, you can probably wait awhile.

- How much of the content on your site is video? The iPad will be able to browse the Internet and can read regular text; just not video in Flash or Silverlight format. If you've got one or two videos on your site, it's probably not worth the effort. If you're attempting to become the next YouTube, it's more of a priority.

- How hard will an iPad specific site be to create? If your site is totally home grown, it will take some (but not a lot) of effort; if you're using an online video provider like Brightcove or Kaltura, who can already output HTML5 compatible videos, it's much less effort.

Overall, for most sites, there's no hurry, we'll know more about how well the iPad sells, and about any competitors, over time.

Should You Consider Converting Your Main Site to HTML5?

Several things to consider here; first, only about 50 percent of the browsers out there are currently HTML5 compatible, so if you opt to support HTML5, you'll have to include an alternative tag that will query the browser for HTML5 compatibility and fallback to Flash (or Silverlight, if you're currently using that plug-in) if your browser can't play HTML5. So, for the foreseeable future, you'll have to support Flash (or Silverlight) anyway.

Second, there isn't a single codec that all HTML5 browsers support; Mozilla Firefox, Opera's Opera browser and Google Chrome support Ogg Theora, while Apple Safari, Chrome and reportedly Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 will support H.264. So, to fully support HTML5, you'll have to produce in at least two formats, maybe three if you're currently producing in VP6 for Flash, or Windows Media for Silverlight.

Third, to the extent that you've added Flash or Siverlight add ons to your site, say community features like Twitter integration or embed codes, you'll have to re-write these in Javascript. If you use a streaming server with digital rights management (DRM) or have implemented multiple file adaptive bit-rate streaming, you'll have to forgo these on your HTML5 specific site, because they're not generally available, though they are coming. If you sell advertising via an ad server or network, you'll likely have to forgo that as well, since these aren't generally available now either, though they are coming as well.

So, at least in the short term, deciding to add HTML5 support to your current site provides no benefit to 50 percent of your viewers (though this will shrink over time), doubles your encoding load, forces you to rewrite many of your custom programs and may force you to de-feature your site. You make the call.

Why the Hubbub About HTML5?

It all depends upon your point of view. To HTML5 proponents, Flash = air pollution, which is always BAD (in capital letters). Components of Flash's bad-ness (in the older sense, not the positive newer, get on with your bad self, connotation) include the fact that it's proprietary, a CPU Hog (though I disproved that here ), and a security risk, though Flash seems more of a target for hackers because of its ubiquity rather than any inherently faulty design.

To HTML5 proponents, providing any alternative to Flash, even one that requires more work and offers less features, is good because Flash = air pollution, and air pollution is BAD. Following this "logic," HTML5 proponents don't seem to feel the need to prove that HTML5 has any real advantages, other than displacing Flash. In other words, very little time and effort has been spent establishing features that HTML5 can provide that Flash (or Silverlight) can't.

To others, Flash = a plug-in that enables lots of games, or Flash = a ubiquitous platform that enables simple cross-browser and cross platform publishing. To most of these folks, HTML5 seems like a polluted idea, and Flash a breath of fresh air.

Basically, the hubbub about HTML5 comes down to the iPad - no iPad, and none of the companies listed above would have a HTML5 site, and few of the technology providers would be making HTML5 product announcements. Before considering the iPad as the start of a mass migration to HTML5, however, understand that it's a very limited test case. Like the iPhone, the iPad is a closed system that supports one single browser (Apple Safari) and one codec (H.264), one digital rights management technology (Apple's) and one adaptive streaming technology (Apple's).

In the real world of general computing, each browser has to duplicate the features currently supplied by the Flash or Silverlight Player. They will have to support multiple codecs, multiple adaptive bitrate technologies and multiple DRM systems on multiple platforms, and they're going to have to agree on standards for all of these features. Many of these conversations have barely started. Standards for advertising servers will also have to be agreed upon and implemented. Throw in the fact that 50 percent of web visitors are currently driving browsers that aren't HTML5 compatible, and you can probably keep HTML5 compatibility on the back burner for another 12-18 months at least.

Jan Ozer is a streaming media consultant and frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on streaming related topics. He is the author of Critical Skills for Streaming Producers, a mixed media tutorial on DVD published by

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