YouTube's video pick spells doom for Adobe Flash

By using HTML5 by default to deliver YouTube video, Google helps the Web root out Adobe's Flash. The next challenge for the Web: competing with mobile apps.

HTML5 graphic
W3C

Adobe Systems' Flash software had a good long run as the technology of choice for bringing interactive splash to the Web, but Google is helping to give it the heave-ho by moving YouTube to Web-standard video instead.

"We're now defaulting to the HTML5 player on the Web," said YouTube engineering manager Richard Leider in a blog post Tuesday. It took four years for Google to make the HTML5 change, which is a major victory for Web standards fans who've strived to eject proprietary plug-ins from the Web.

If you watched a video online 10 years or so, ago, it was almost certainly delivered with Flash. That's because Flash gave people an easy way to publish and share video in a way everyone could access -- similar to what Adobe did with its PDF file format and Acrobat document creation tool. That was during a period of relatively slow change for the Web, when Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 dominated the market but remained static for years. Adobe acquired Flash's creator, Macromedia, for $3.4 billion in 2005.

Many of Flash's detractors, however, didn't want technology that's owned and controlled by a single company. Its most vocal opponent was Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who publicly castigated Flash. "We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers," he famously wrote in blog post in April 2010. But while Jobs was the technology's best-known detractor, he wasn't alone.

Flash opponents have been active for years, trying to improve the Web's foundation itself rather than proprietary technology that rides on top of it. They wanted technology created by industry consensus and built directly into browsers themselves.

Browser makers Mozilla, Apple and Opera Software banded together to improve Web standards so that fancy Web features no longer required the Flash Player browser plug-in. Google accelerated that effort by launching its Chrome browser, and Microsoft has moved from Web standards laggard to enthusiast. Dozens of standards have emerged from the effort, but a top item is HTML5 video, which makes it as easy to add video to Web pages as adding photos was before.

That Web-standards shift, plus Apple's refusal to permit the Flash Player plugin on iPhones and iPads, led Adobe to redirect its resources to Web standards, too.

Google's latest move is not a full victory. Even as Web standards like Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) improve, many programmers are shifting attention to mobile operating systems -- chiefly Apple's iOS and Google's Android -- where apps use programming interfaces set solely by the OS creator. In other words, HTML5 furthers browser-centric computing, but many people sidestep the issue altogether by watching YouTube with an YouTube app instead.

It hasn't been an easy transition.

In 2010, Google listed several reasons why HTML5 video wasn't ready to replace Flash, including lack of support for digital rights management (DRM), which blocks video copying, and for full-screen video. Those features now are possible with the Web standard.

Curiously, though, the top complaint Google had about HTML5 video is still there. Google wanted a standard video codec -- the technology used to compress and decompress video and audio for economical storage and distribution over networks. Google has long been pushing for adoption of its own VP8 and now VP9 codec, but the industry has preferred another, H.264/AVC, and seems poised to shift gradually to its successor, H.265/HEVC.

Google's Chrome browser and Mozilla's Firefox support both codec families, but Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari support only H.264. So for now, YouTube has to offer its videos in both formats.

And although Flash Player remains widely used, that usage increasingly will be only on sites that aren't updated to keep up with current technology.

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