The evolution of online video

| Senior Forum Editor

It goes without saying that online video currently dominates the climate of technology. With the advent of YouTube and other sites that allow for user-generated video and media, we have morphed from the Information Age of computing to the Media Age. Along with this change, of course, comes a great struggle to control—and profit from—these various avenues.

Adobe is at the center of this conflict, with the relatively recent purchase of Flash technology from Macromedia in 2005. Flash as a multimedia platform currently dominates the technological currency of online video: Even independent video aggregation sites aside from YouTube overwhelmingly use Flash, and only now has a competitor risen from the ashes of such atrocious failures as Gnash and Swfdec: HTML5. HTML5 would probably be doomed to the fate of all the other failed implementations before it if not for the strong support of its founding consortium, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group. Members include individuals from the Mozilla Foundation, Opera Software and, of course, our friends at Apple. Steve Jobs has viciously denounced Flash as unstable and buggy, and is aggressively marketing HTML5 as a successor, implementing HTML5 and, conspicuously, not Flash, in Apple’s mobile devices. This, however, raises a fundamental question: Even if Flash is superior to HTML5 as a technology, do we have any other reasons to prefer the latter over the former? I contend that yes, we do.

The problem with Flash is that ultimately, it is not an open platform. As it currently stands, because of intellectual copyright laws, Adobe has a de facto monopoly on the Internet video business: If you want to have a video-sharing site, add video-sharing capabilities to your Web site or even append videos to your blog, you’re going through Adobe and specifically through Flash. This in itself is not a legitimate reason to prefer one system over another. So what if Adobe has control over a disproportionately large percentage of the market as long as its functionality is adequate for the demands of video output? I personally do not take much stock in the mentality that open software is always better than privately developed and copyrighted software.

But I do think that open software has a distinct advantage over closed software in one crucial area: its ability to evolve. Some technologies are perfectly adequate despite a poor pace of software development. Microsoft Word is 90 percent of what it used to be back in 1995, and yet 15 years later, the function of word processors is exactly the same: We just need a screen to write on. Contrast this with online video—unlike word processing, online video is a constantly changing landscape, with developments in bandwidth allocation, video processing, video encoding and video playback all affecting the technology itself. Five years ago, high-definition playback on streaming video was a complete nonissue, and now it is quickly becoming the standard. Adobe, on the other hand, has consistently failed to keep pace with technology. I suspect that this is not due to any particular failure on Adobe’s part (unlike Acrobat Reader, quite possibly the worst software ever developed), but rather that no private entity can keep up. The Internet moves at a breakneck speed, and standards that can be dynamically developed via collaborative efforts on the part of individual users over time are the only way to match the speed at which the Internet develops. Any standard for future playback must have the ability to develop alongside, and not in response to, the development of the Internet. HTML5, being an open standard, allows for this flexibility, and so is much more forward-looking. I can’t be confident in saying which technology will prevail, but I can at least argue which standard is better, and if it ends up with me huddling HTML5 like an old discarded Betamax player, well, so be it.

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