H.264 Is A Codec, Flash Is A Platform: One Can’t Kill Off The Other

Over the weekend I read another few dozen articles on the whole Apple and Adobe debate and probably read through a thousand comments. Some of the posts I read were really good, but far too many people are comparing codecs (H.264, VP8), platforms (Flash) and languages (HTML5) as if they are all the same thing.

There are lots of posts talking about open standards and making statements on how H.264 is going to kill off Flash. The problem with these statements is that H.264 is a video codec. That's it. It's not a platform of any kind like Flash is. H.264 video has to be played back in a wrapper or by a web browser. The Flash player supports playback of H.264 as long as it has the proper wrapper, which most people either don't know, or simply aren't mentioning. H.264 is not going to put Flash out of business because it can't. It's not a substitute for Flash and is not a platform like Flash. The Flash video platform includes an entire ecosystem for video that includes a player, server and technology for things like content protection (DRM).

If we want to debate the relevance of H.264 to Adobe, then the debate should only be about what H.264 is, a codec. The codec discussion involves H.264, VP6, VP8 and Ogg Theora, the four main video codecs that exist today. Based on what we have seen from content owners over the past eighteen months, there is no question that H.264 is getting a lot of traction and content owners are moving away from VP6 in favor of H.264. That's been clear for some time, which is why Adobe's player has supported the playback of H.264 encoded video since August of 2007.

Another misconception about H.264 is that it does everything all the older codecs do, yet that's not true. Because Flash and Silverlight are platforms and not a codec, their ecosystems include the ability to do things like protect content. Encoding content in H.264 doesn't provide content owners with the ability to take advantage of DRM and H.264 does not support the ability to do adaptive streaming like the Flash and Silverlight platforms provide.

While we're seeing a lot of traction with H.264, it's still not the one codec to rule the world. In fact, we will never have just one codec for a multitude of reasons. While H.264 is great for high-quality video, it's a poor choice for content that's encoded at a lower bitrate with the intention of reaching a wider audience. There is a lot of legacy content that's already been encoded in VP6 that content owners are not willing to re-encode into H.264.

I've seen some argue that these content owners should get with the times and just move to H.264, but not every content owner is targeting an audience capable of getting HD quality video. And while I read one article that said, "no one is really going to go digging very far back into your files if it’s more than six months old", for many content owners, that could not be further from the truth. I've seen a lot of people commenting that content owners should always use the best and most "open" video technology on the market, but with that argument, then these same customers should also drop support for H.264 in three weeks when Google makes VP8 available. Let's be realistic.

The real topic to discuss is what will happen when Google open sources VP8 and then tries to challenge the H.264 codec. While VP8 was never made public when it was under the domain of On2, if the claims that On2 made are accurate, VP8 produces better video quality than H.264 "with data savings of more than 40%". If that is the case, it's going to be very interesting to watch the battle between H.264, which Microsoft and Apple are promoting versus VP8, which Google will be promoting. But all of this debate about codecs really has nothing to do with Adobe. Adobe does not have a codec at stake. Personally, I think Adobe should have purchased On2 back in 2008 when On2 was really struggling and their stock was at a five year low. Doing so would of given Adobe control of VP8 instead of Google, but Adobe chose not to get into the codec business.

So the real debate with H.264 has nothing to do with Flash, but rather with the browsers that support and play back video. Microsoft has said they will only support H.264 in IE9, but we have to remember that IE6 still has close to 10% market share and the browser is nine years old. Looking at my own traffic stats for my blog, nearly 15% of my traffic each month comes from viewers using IE6. Like it or not, that's reality. So the idea that H.264 video playback in a browser that supports HTML5 is somehow going to work for all viewers overnight is simply not the case. How many Internet viewers will have an HTML5 compatible browser in the next two years? Not as many as some seem to think.

In addition, many of the companies that make the browsers do not agree on which video codec should be supported within the HTML5 framework. There is no standard video codec that has been agreed upon when it comes to playing video back in a HTML5 supported browser.

Of course, consumers don't care about any of this. They simply want video to work, for the quality to be good and for things to be simple. But that's not the way the online video industry has ever worked. With all the back room fighting that's taking place between Apple, Adobe and soon to be Google, it appears evident that the real battle amongst these companies is only just starting.

  • It seems to me sometimes that the best simulation of the business of online video is the game of tic-tac-toe. The same things seem to happen over and over and no one ever wins. The inability to win is probably good for the industry in general since one system becoming dominant to the exclusion of all others means innovation ends, but it does get tiring after a while.
    I bring this up only because, with just a few adjustments in names and circumstances, you could have written the same basic post at any time in the past 10 years. It seems there has always been this confusion between the codec and the platform (or architecture, or wrapper, or whatever you want to call it). I guess there are folks out there who make their living making sure the difference is too mysterious for mere mortals to understand. They’re sure not going to like this post very much.
    I, on the other hand, think it’s a breath of fresh air.

  • Spot on Dan-
    It’s nice to finally see someone mention that it is ultimately about the end user watching videos – most folks seem to forget that. It also will be a much slower process than people think. The browser upgrades over the next few years will tell the tale.

  • Lee

    One other thought to toss in… There are NO guarantees that streaming H.264 over the net will be free. I’m siding with those that think MPEG LA will surely enforce streaming royalties.
    I’m excited for the competition from Google and VP8 and I hope the rumors hold true and it does become open source. Hopefully this will truly be better than H.264 or at least keep H.264 streaming free.
    More on the possibility of H.264 royalties

  • Leo

    Good article.
    I think VP8 in the hands of Google can be great news for the Flash Platform. The Flash Player will be an excellent way to get the codec into peoples browsers really quickly.
    Making it into the default codec for HTML5 is just very difficult and slow, and that will be a secondare long-term approach.
    I blogged about this earlier today:

  • Ken

    I don’t think anyone who’s well-informed on the issue sees this as a “Flash v. H.264” debate. There are really two separate debates happening — one over Adobe vs Apple, and another over H.264 vs a free Internet.
    H.264, the patent-encumbered quasi-standard from MPEG LA, does have a lot of industry backing. Then again, embedding Java in the browser had even more industry-backing than H.264, with every major browser supporting it. More than a decade later, we can ask ourselves, how’d that go?
    The problem with H.264 is and forever will be MPEG LA. Simply put, in countries where computer algorithms can be patented, Mozilla is prohibited by its own license agreement from using H.264. And Mozilla speaks on behalf of the entire Open Source community on this issue. We’re not going away, and we’re certainly not accepting H.264 any time in the future.

  • mick

    “Another misconception about H.264 is that it does everything all the older codecs do, yet that’s not true. Because Flash and Silverlight are platforms and not a codec, their ecosystems include the ability to do things like protect content. Encoding content in H.264 doesn’t provide content owners with the ability to take advantage of DRM and H.264 does not support the ability to do adaptive streaming like the Flash and Silverlight platforms provide.”
    Uh, okay. Given that H.264 is a video codec, I’d suggest it does in fact do what older video codecs do. You go to the effort of separating the concepts of codecs and platforms but you then go ahead and mix them together again.
    You fail to mention the most important platform which is, of course, the Web platform. Neither Flash nor Silverlight are terribly relevant without it. They’re both parasites to the Web platform’s host.
    To be serious about the Web platform, companies need to be serious about royalty-free. After all, all Web standards must be capable of implementation on a royalty-free basis:
    Mozilla gets it. Opera gets it. Google (if indeed they release VP8 on a royalty-free basis) gets it. If the biggest provider of Web video moves to provide it on a royalty-free basis without Flash, what real use are the majority of Web users going to have for Flash? The answer is “not much”.

  • Leo

    What makes you think that Google would limit themselves to provide VP8 through HTML5?
    Do you think MS and Apple will want to adopt codecs that compete with h.264?
    If they do, when will more than 90% of users have a browser which supports VP8?
    Google will open VP8 and try to convince browsers to include it, but they also use Flash to get it out to more than 90% of users almost instantly.
    That is one reason they are partners with Adobe in OpenScreenProject and is working on integrating the flash player in Chrome to get optimal performance.

  • Great post, Dan!
    To your last point about the consumer not caring – that is exactly the reason that video enablers need to remain as agnostic and flexible as possible, to allow video publishers to provide the optimal video experience for viewers, no matter where they are coming from and what browser they’re using.
    At Kaltura, where we have developed an open source online video platform, we are investing a ton of effort in making sure that anyone who wants to publish, manage, monetize and syndicate video online can reach the widest audience possible in the most seamless way. A big part of this includes Kaltura’s support of all underlying platforms and technologies, as well as codecs.
    Anyone interested can learn more at http://www.kaltura.com as well as the industry resource we recently launched together with Mozilla, the Wikimedia Foundation and the Open Video Alliance – http://www.html5video.org
    It will indeed be interesting to see how this all pans out.

  • k_pr

    Good information. Thanks.

  • random_graph

    Heaps of praises to Dan for trying to clarify the notion of file format vs codec. There’s so much debate right now over “MPEG-4” vs h.264 which is nonsense. The debate really needs to be about .MP4 vs .FLV file formats and plug-in vs non-plug-in browser architectures. As you say much Flash video distributed today is in fact FLV{h.264} which is steadily gaining share over FLV{VP6}.
    The real disruption is from Apple; if a content provider is going to provide video to the iPhone or iPad, then the video needs to be in MOV or MP4 formats (essentially the same file type) and typically h.264 codec. This is the only major consumption platform not to support FLV format video. HTML5 and the battle over royalties is just a red herring. As you say, HTML5 has carefully avoided specifying even a ‘preferred’ list of codecs to be supported. So where is this MP4/HTML5 association coming from? MP4 (=MOV) was specified by Apple as the only way to get video to the iPhone or iPad. So this is becoming an ad-hoc standard driven by Apple, not by HTML5 specifications.
    I’m also concerned that people are confusing “open” with “free”. Most all the “open” codecs are based on the same encoding principals as all the royalty-based MPEG codecs such as h.264. You can bet your life that any widespread adoption of VP8 or Theora will be carefully followed by MPEG-LA attorneys. At least at this grass-roots level the Firefox developers can probably rationalize support for these codecs.

  • Yes, Flash is a platform. Flash was built to display vibrant content like video. However, Flash is no longer needed to show this type of content and that is why a codec like H.264 is being discussed so heavily. H.264 is simply a result of change. It is not the codec but the fact that Flash is a dinasour that can’t keep up with the evolution of the web.
    Flash does not work on mobile devices. Flash is virus prone. Flash is a closed platform. Flash is not search friendly. And thiese are the directions that everyone is moving in. Flash isn’t dead but it is just too big and clunky to change. OR Adobe is too big and clunky to enable Falsh to eveolve. Either way, change is here to stay and that is a cosntant.

  • @Aeron If anything you stated above was true and Flash was indeed too ‘big and clunky’ then why is it that Flash is filling the feature gaps in yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s browsers?
    ‘H.264 is a result of change’ – What on earth are you talking about? Have you even read Dan’s article before commenting?
    As for your statement about Flash not evolving… ‘Clueless’ comes to mind.
    PS: you really ought to take down those YouTube videos on your blog. don’t you know that ‘Flash is no longer needed to show this type of content’?

  • barryhannah

    @Aeron Flash is a dinosaur? Flash has been leading the way in rich web applications for the best part of a decade. Most if not all of the features that the HTML5 proposes will replace it are things Flash has been able to do for years. Where is the real innovation? Not with the browsers my friend. They are the true “dinosaurs”.
    I’m on board with HTML5, I’m on board with a free and open web, but I’m also on board with he right tool for the job. In some instances that tool is Flash. It’s not going anywhere.

  • I got a good solution! Thanks for sharing this informative post with us…………..

  • H.264 is referring to a replacement for flash video… HTML 5 has other features which replace other parts of flash.

  • good source.. thanks for sharing.

  • viewatar

    You are talking total rubish there no comparison in quality in H264 to .flv much much much higher full stop H264 wins allthe time

    • makki5

      You are in fact quite misguided. FLV is a media container, H.264 is a codec. To explain in layman terms, a .flv file usually contains media in the h.264 format. So this basis for comparison is completely invalid like your argument.