In May, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) -- the group responsible for establishing Web standards -- announced the first draft of the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) specification. It will allow content producers to add Digital Rights Management (DRM) content protection to HTML5-based videos. Tech giants like Google, Netflix, and Microsoft have been active in the specification process, which will allow content producers more control over content distribution. This control has traditionally been dependent on plug-ins like Flash or Silverlight.
The announcement was met with mixed reactions from the tech community, but it’s clearly going to enable the HTML5 standard to be used in cases where content controls are part of distribution requirements. For example Netflix can now run on the Linux HTML5 based Chrome book. This enables companies like Netflix to leverage HTML5 for application interfaces and seamless online video viewing without the use of clunky plug-ins.
While the Chrome book may be illustrative of experiences to come, content producers and developers still have several issues to work through before the multiplatform experience is fully up to par with the Flash and plug-in experience across all the places HTML5 is used.
Today, video platforms work via native, HTML5, and Flash. Open-source players have helped to streamline video delivery, but device limitations and competing platform interests mean delivering HTML5 video is still somewhat complex.
While the latest browser releases from Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Mozilla have relatively solid HTML5 support, the arena is complicated with older versions of browsers and new players like Sony, Amazon, and the emerging market of smart TVs.
One major challenge facing online video distribution today is the fragmented support for live and adaptive streaming protocol. This means the quality of experience is not always as good as native and plug-in based offerings.
In the case of live broadcast streaming, some platforms are left out of the picture altogether, such as earlier versions of Android.
HTML5 has steadily introduced new features that will help close these gaps. In addition to the Encrypted Media Extensions API, the MediaStream API is also starting to ship in the latest browsers from Chrome and Firefox, and will allow for live video broadcasting and adaptive streaming.
This means HTML5 is the primary development target, with other platforms or plug-ins being used to close feature gaps. Because of the multi-vendor, multiplatform nature of HTML5, it’s important to choose a player platform that has flexibility to interchange components and delivery across HTML5, Flash and native. This means you design for HTML5 but don’t sacrifice features where HTML5 is less mature.
Here are a few important features to look out for when choosing a video player platform:
1. Speed. A recent study found that if a video doesn’t load in two seconds, viewers will click away. A player that performs quickly is essential for creating a solid viewing experience across multiple devices, and it’s important to choose one that performs in benchmarks and in Web pages, where other sources are competing to load.
2. Full integration with ad networks and analytics providers. It’s important for a player to be flexible to allow content producers to customize the experience, particularly for meeting branding goals. The best player library will allow the producer to customize the experience and allow for skinning.
3. Choice between different HTML5 platforms. A player library should help the producer navigate different HTML5 platforms. The library should allow producers to choose between native and HTML-based controls for playing on iOS devices, or allow for choice between Flash and HTML5 for Windows 8 and Android devices. Your same player configuration should also cross over to native devices where need be. Back-end features are also important -- like metadata management tools -- meaning the library should be closely integrated with a platform.
As HTML5 closes its feature gaps (on some platforms), it becomes a first choice rather than a fallback. Per device limitations will continue to exist and require workarounds, but instead of fitting into a Flash-centric world, we will see HTML5 video in the center and per platform workarounds on the edges. This ultimately leads to improved HTML5 support and HTML5 dominating online video distribution. Content producers should look to video player platforms that enable them to lead with HTML5 and seamlessly close per device limitations to maximize the effective delivery of rich online video experiences.