Will HTML5 kill Flash?

There’s been a lot of buzz going on in the blogosphere and over Twitter about the future of HTML5 recently.  For those who don’t know, HTML5 is the “next” standard for HTML.  The reason you need to care about HTML5 is because HTML5’s success (or failure) is going to have a dramatic impact on the future of web video and video commerce in particular.

HTML5 video is unique because it is delivered directly through the web browser, without a plugin.  Because HTML5 support will be included natively in web browsers, it may become a formidable competitor to Adobe’s Flash technology, which requires users to download a plugin to use and powers the vast majority of web video today.  Of course, Adobe argues that HTML5 will throw web video “back into the dark ages” while HTML5 supporters claim HTML5 is the “wave of the future.”

Who’s right?  Is HTML5 really going to be big?  Will HTML5 kill Flash?

My answer to these questions are “Probably, but not in the near-term” and “Maybe, but it’s going to take a long time if it ever happens.”

Why do I think HTML5 will be big?

  • There’s a lot of momentum behind HTML5 and powerful, entrenched interests are pushing for HTML5 – hard (Google and Apple, to name two of the big ones).  Want video on your iPhone?  Apple says “No thank you” to Flash – “We’ll take HTML5.”
  • Ever dream of delivering full video in your emails?  Flash represents a security risk, but HTML5 is supported in many web mail clients (at least when run in new browsers)
  • HTML5 is already supported in Chrome 3 and up, Firefox 3.6, Safari 3 and 4, and iPhone (plus some secondary devices/browsers)
  • HTML5 embeds are easy for end users.  Toss in a <video> tag and you can call a video, not in a completely dissimilar manner to how we use <img> tags in today’s HTML.
  • HTML5 is open.  The technology community (especially developers) tend to get excited about open technologies and standards
  • MPEG-LA just tore down one of the biggest stumbling blocks facing h.264 (the standard video codec used with HTML5 videos in some web browsers) for another 5 years.  Additionally, videos that are not licensed for revenue (e.g. feature films, TV shows) are exempt from paying licensing fees (e.g. product videos used in video commerce programs).
With all the above pieces in place, one might think that Flash is really in deep trouble.  I’d argue that’s not the case (at least in the short term).  HTML5 still faces a lot of roadblocks while Flash enjoys an enormous lead in market share:
  • HTML5 adoption is entirely dependent on how quickly Internet users adopt web browsers with built-in HTML5 support (because HTML5 is not supported in older browsers).  If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely using a brand-spankin’ new web browser.  Most of the world is not like us (witness how many corporate IT departments still run IE6).
  • There is no support at all for HTML5 in Internet Explorer (Microsoft is still pushing Silverlight).
  • Licensing issues around the use of video codecs used with HTML5 compliant browsers persist, with one camp pushing the open-source Ogg Theora codec while the other pushes h.264 (includes license “strings” and uncertain future around royalties past 2016.
  • Web video today is [for the most part] delivered through Flash players.  There are a lot of powerful Flash applications built by developers and retooling those Flash applications for HTML5 is not going to be easy or desirable for many developers who may find HTML5 less flexible or powerful (not to mention not as widely adopted).  Plus, delivering interactivity within video (a tenet of video commerce) must be done through Javascript – lots of player rewrites to be done.
HTML5 seems poised to make some big waves, but my best guess is that these changes will take 2-4 years to play out.  In the meantime, as HTML5 adoption grows, I expect to see a lot of exciting new technologies being built while video platform providers scramble to HTML5-enable their systems.  I also expect we’ll see a flood of exciting new HTML5 startups emerging.
These are exciting times in the world of web video and for video commerce in particular.  Until next time –
Happy Selling!