Today YouTube announced a new beta program that will allow you to view the movies on its site using pure HTML5, no Adobe Flash required.
To be fair, it isn’t a huge change if you enter the beta. The controls for the movies are different and the loading animation says “HTML5” rather than having the familiar YouTube spinner, but the potential impact could be huge.
Even though it is just an early test and has several limitations, including it only working on Safari/Chrome and does not support full screen viewing or videos with ads/annotations, YouTube’s efforts to shift away from Flash could signal a major change for the Web and one that will likely be for the better.
Why is it important? The reasons lie below the surface but it is very easy to see why this feature has been so heavily requested by YouTube and why the have decided to act.
A Brief History of Flash
Flash started its life in 1996, almost 15 years ago, for the purpose of adding animated and interactive content to the Web. Since then, it has been used in absolutely everything from annoying banner ads to gorgeous games, from animated buttons to entire Web sites.
Though Flash has always been important, for much of its existence, one could easily surf the Web without Flash installed and largely have a complete Web experience. However, in 2002, when Flash Video was added to the product, the floodgates were opened.
For years effective video playback on the Web had been something of a holy grail. The first attempts were bogged down by a combination of codec issues, which prevented people without the proper codecs from playing the file, and lack of broadband. However, increased availability of inexpensive high-speed Internet solved the second problem and Flash Video solved the first since almost everyone had Flash on their computers.
However, this changed the purpose of Flash. It went from being something most people had but rarely used to a critical part of the Web experience. No Flash meant no YouTube or other video sites and watching videos online quickly became one of, if not the single, most common activity online.
In short, Flash went from being a nice thing to have to a necessity and a daily part of nearly every Web user’s life. While this isn’t bad by itself, it brought with it a series of problems to consider.
Why Less Flash is More
Most of the problems with Flash stem from the simple fact that it is a plugin that resides in your browser. Essentially, when you run a Flash element, it is running inside a separate program that runs within your browser, including the following:
- Security: Like any program, Flash has security issues that often need to be patched and can be exploited. These security issues can, very often, be very dangerous.
- Stability/Speed: Every layer you add to a browser the more you slow down the system and the less stable it becomes. Flash is well known for crashing on computers, often taking the browser with it, and can be a major performance drag.
- Privacy: Finally, Flash adds another layer of privacy issues to the browser. Flash can and does save cookies and will do so even in private browsing modes on most browsers.
This isn’t a case for eliminating the use of Flash, or any other plugin for that matter, but a definite argument for minimizing their use when possible. Fortunately, HTML5 gives us the chance to do just that when dealing with video sites and the Web will be better off if we seize the opportunity.
Why HTML5 is Better
The reason HTML5 is better is simple, unlike Flash that requires another program, HTML5 runs natively in your browser (so long as it is compatible). You can view multimedia without a plugin at all. This brings with it improvements in performance, security and privacy.
It is especially good for users of operating systems other than Windows, most of all Linux, who have not gotten the same level of support for their Flash plugins as Windows. Though the versions are the same now, at least numerically, there are many reports of Flash being more problematic on OSX and Linux.
Imagine, for a moment, if every single image on the Web required a third-party plugin to view it and the plugin was controlled by a single company. The Web would be almost impossible to use for many and we would all be at the whims of this company, their choices of operating systems and decisions about features. That is not what the Web wants.
Fortunately, you can insert images (of multiple formats) into pages without plugins but with the rising popularity of video it is not too difficult to imagine a Web where video is as, or even more, important than still pictures. As such, it is important to make sure that technology is not dependent on a plugin or a lone company for maintenance.
Once again, none of this is an argument against Flash itself. HTML5 video will not kill of Flash as it can do many things that HTML5 can not. However, reducing our dependency on it is important and switching to open standards even more so as it is crucial for the future of the Web.
That being said, the most wonderful thing about the HTML5 version of YouTube is how much it is like the old one. Videos look and play the same and someone not paying close attention might not notice the difference.
With some tweaking and additional work, as well as better browser support, HTML5 can clear be a full replacement for Flash video and, when that time comes, it’s a bandwagon I hope other video sites jump on as well.