March 30, 2010

H.264 isn’t an alternative to Flash

Did you think they were competing formats? If not, congrats: you’re better informed than most. Seems like a lot of people are confused, or at least are kind of careless with their phrasing.
In common usage, “H.264″ refers to a video format, and “Flash” refers to a video player. Flash Player displays H.264-encoded video, as do other players (QuickTime, and now the Safari and Chrome Web browsers reading HTML5 video tags–with Internet Explorer to follow).

This all gets muddied, however.

Daring Fireball noted the other day, “TED Goes H.264: Chris Anderson announces a non-Flash version of TED.com for iPhone OS.” Seeing a statement like that, you might think that the TED site has switched file formats, from Flash video to H.264.

I haven’t talked to the TED folks, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t using H.264 already, displaying it in browser via the Flash Player. The news here, such as it is, is that they’re using an alternate player on a device where Flash Player isn’t allowed to run.

That makes perfect sense, of course. If you’re creating content, you probably have no ideological allegiance to formats or players. You don’t care much whether video is, say, H.264 or VC-1 or PDQ-One-Niner, nor do you care whether the player is Flash or QuickTime or anything else. Rather, you care about results. Most particularly, can your audience see it? Once that’s taken care of, does the presentation meet your needs (e.g. interactivity, integration, content protection, stats measurement, etc.)? And from there, do you have effective tools for creating the content? And so on.

TED.com uses Flash Player to display videos because that lets them reach 98% of browsers. If they chose to display the same video via HTML5 markup, they’d reach ~10% of browsers (Safari + Chrome). On the iPhone/iPad, because they’re not able use Flash Player, they’re using an alternate player.

So:

  • You can debate one format vs. another (e.g. H.264 vs. Ogg Theora)
  • You can debate one player vs. another (e.g. Flash Player vs. a Web browser reading HTML5 tags)
  • You can’t really debate “Flash vs. H.264″

On systems where both Flash and other players can run, it’s perfectly legitimate to debate which one to use; each will have pros and cons. My goal mentioning all this is to add a little clarity to those debates.

Posted by John Nack at 2:10 PM on March 30, 2010

Comments

  • Thomas Maier — 2:32 PM on March 30, 2010

    Your argument is, that HTML5 is only supported by ~10% of the browsers. Is this a pro-Flash argument? If yes, and this was an argument for many people, then you have to remember the time where Flash was supported by ~10%. It’s just a matter of time.
    [Presumably that's true, particularly with IE getting on board. Right now, however, if you want to reach a majority of viewers, you'd do well to use Flash (displaying H.264, if you'd like). --J.]
    Yep, this isn’t a comment on your blog post. I’m just sayin’. It was important to me.
    @topic: I agree with you and it’s good that someone like you writes such posts which clarifies circumstances. But I guess Gruber was just to lazy to be exact.
    [I'm not calling anyone lazy. I'm saying that imprecision here isn't helpful, at least to having a good, practical discussion. (Imprecision may be helpful one is just trying to stick it to Adobe/Flash--but I like to give the benefit of the doubt.) --J.]

  • Hugh Roper — 2:41 PM on March 30, 2010

    “Seeing a statement like that, you might think that the TED site has switched file formats, from Flash video to H.264.”

    I think you’re blowing Gruber’s headline out of proportion. I read the headline and immediately thought that iPhone users now have access to TED.com video. I didn’t think anything about Flash.

  • jjjjq — 3:19 PM on March 30, 2010

    yawn.. what to expect from a adobe slave….
    [What to expect from an illiterate, pseudonymous troll. I'm reminded of the Brad Pitt character interrogating John Doe towards the end of SE7EN: "Do you just stop and go, 'Wow! It is *amazing* how [...] crazy I really am!?’” In this case, replace “crazy” with “detrimental to whatever cause I’m ostensibly trying to advance.” –J.]

  • leef — 4:27 PM on March 30, 2010

    Yeah, Flash teams have been making HTML alternative sites forever, and now that there’s a popular platform that doesn’t support Flash, it’s regretfully more important than ever. Apple is pointlessly taking backward steps, and I believe will pay for it in the long run.

  • John C. Welch — 7:22 PM on March 30, 2010

    Again, if you look at the core of the argument, (at least the argument that Adobe can do something about, which is not Flashturbation), it is not the format of the presented video, but the *quality* of the plugin.
    Honestly, and i am *so* not unopinionated on this, (or anything else mind you), if i were to stop seeing the browser stalls and crashes that happen when i’m trying to load or play or work with Flash content, 95% of my complaints about flash?
    they go away.
    *However*, just like it is completely disingenuous for people to imply that the flash plugin team has an easy job. (Tinic’s post pointing out that the three major browsers on the Mac OS have three different graphics models, including, for $DEITY’s sake, *quickdraw*, shows just how hard that job is.) the other bullshit arguments from the flash team are well, bullshit too. (tautology club is tautology club!)
    Tinic’s post also shows the bullshit behind Adobe’s argument, “well, Apple doesn’t give us the API like Windows does.”
    WHich API? QuickDraw? CoreGraphics? Core Animation? this isn’t like windows, where all things are under a single, or maybe two, graphics APIs. I freely admit that Microsoft has, from the dev point of view, an easier time of choosing. DirectX, and you’re done. But Apple still has a way to go before the graphics APIs are where they should be, and that’s just the reality of the platform.
    Keep in mind, the Flash plugin is not an application. It is not a driver. it is a *plugin* to applications that are, in general, the most insecure things you will run on your OS: Web Browsers. Yet the Flash bobbleheads, (aka, Dowdell), just tosses that “Apple won’t give us access” crap out there, like a *web browser plugin* should have direct, or even close to direct, low-level hardware access. Considering from a Security POV, the Flash Plugin’s record is only slightly better than Acrobat’s, um..no. no. and no.
    did i say “no”? No? Okay, No.
    So there’s enough blame and crap being slung from all sides, and almost no one wants to admit, sure as hell not Dowdell, that maybe, just as it’s a lot of work to properly support n browsers on every OS platform on the planet, that maybe, figuring out how to properly support Flash, which is not just a runtime for better web pages, but an application runtime on the scale of *Java* on the iPhone is mayhaps a bit tricky too.
    Oh no, can’t do that, can we. and to date, the battery life in handheld flash demos?
    not.
    real.
    impressive.
    So how about Adobe, instead of drawing some asinine line in the sand over *movie playback*, and insisting that this next version of the plugin will fix everything, and give you a pegasus that farts rainbows, stops worrying so damned much about reading and displaying a static video file, concentrates more on the stuff Flash really DOES do better, the stuff you CAN’T do in HTML, not even the magical fairyland of HTML 5, and finally ships a gorram plugin that doesn’t cause more problems than it’s worth?
    Do that, and then you have at least *some* high ground on the “Flash doesn’t screw up your browsing experience, and won’t screw up your iPhone/iPad/etc” argument.
    Because right now, all you have are promises about the next version of software fixing allllll the problems, and John, i’ve been in IT nigh-on 20 years…
    …there’s no way i believe that song anymore.

  • Ben Hansen — 8:22 PM on March 30, 2010

    Maybe the confusion is due to the fact that flash used to be used in and of it’s own right but nowadays it is mostly used as a video player.

  • felix — 8:24 PM on March 30, 2010

    I unsubscribed to all Gruber’s output and now feel so much calmer and cleaner. He is the ultimate troll.

  • Luis — 4:30 AM on March 31, 2010

    I think that when it’s sad flash x h264 it’s referred to not just the compression time but the movie file. A h264 .mov file can be played in any player that has the codec, the flash movie format, the .flv cannot be easily played outside the Internet, cannot be used in a video edition program. Inside the bits the compression can be the same, but the flash movie file is far different to what is ‘commonly’ considered the h264 movie file (.mov .mp4). You can say that your post is technically correct, but there is also how terms are used.
    Sorry for the bad english, I hope I was able to explain my point.
    Bests

  • Mirko Maus — 8:04 AM on March 31, 2010

    Same here. I do not care about the player. I care about content.

  • Thomas — 3:51 PM on March 31, 2010

    I can’t hear that competition anymore.
    Anyone who creates Flash content, (disregarding of application ranges for now), knows the power of flash regarding to interactivity.
    The H264 algorithm never did and never does nothing else and nothing more than to improve quality of (streaming) VIDEO with reasonable file sizes.
    The H264 Codec itself helps DE-CODING VIDEO and is far away from being installed on a high percentage of machines, respectively Operating Systems AND there’s bunch of players who do not support the codec respectively the media created with that Codec.
    So who’s the bad cop for now. Is it Apple, is it Adobe, is it the MpegLA (Holder of the AVC/H264 Licenses)?
    Really, i don’t want to miss Flash for content creation that holds Audio, Video Scripting/Programming and thus Interactivity packed for JUST one small plugin as the engine that delivers that content.
    Plus, flash player plugin supports native H264 playback so you never be aimed to encode specifically FLV Files, just put your H264 encoded movie (with the correct streaming header applied) up to your server and you’re good to go.
    Quicktime player itself AND the Plugin? Old, Outdated and Slow! That’s the crux of the matter. Go and blame Apple and don’t be blinded by the big shiny consumer products.
    Apple, Haha, oh boy,
    they still put
    their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else.
    Anyways.
    If Adobe is willed to keep up on improving the development of their little babys AND keeping interaction with the consumer/user base, I’ll see a very bright future and less digital warfares around content creation and delivery.

  • Mark Alan Thomas — 12:58 AM on April 01, 2010

    I unsubscribed to all Gruber’s output and now feel so much calmer and cleaner. He is the ultimate troll.
    How can he be the ultimate troll when he never posts anywhere but to his own blog?

  • Randy — 4:23 AM on April 01, 2010

    I mean all this hoopla about Flash is a bit strange to me. I am a PC user and I use Opera mainly and It happens that I open sometimes over 30 tabs at the same time, and you can imagine that those tabs have often times Flash elements on their pages. Well I never noticed any problems when I open such pages with Flash animations and didn’t notice any slack on the running of my programs.
    One thing’s for sure: hail to the great communicator, Steve Jobs, who by uttering just a few words, can unleash tsunamis on the web.

  • Hale On Earth — 10:47 PM on April 02, 2010

    Moron.

  • Hale On Earth — 12:00 AM on April 03, 2010

    m curious John if the “~10% of browsers” figure garnered from the linked page includes Safari on the “over 75 million iPhones and iPod touches” sold or just the desktop version. Honestly I skimmed the page and didn’t see any evidence either way. My hunch is that it does not include handhelds. 
    Additionally I’m curious as to whether Adobe’s “98%” rhetoric accounts for handhelds or not.
    Personally I’d like to see Flash on iDevices IF Adobe were able to rise to the challenge and make some serious performance and experience improvements to the technology.

  • Craig Beyers — 9:52 AM on April 05, 2010

    John -
    I don’t pretend to understand the Flash/HTML5/other standard problem. But I thought I’d pass on this link from GCN Daily about the iPad and Steve Jobs comments about Flash’s bugginess: http://gcn.com/articles/2010/04/02/ipads-big-risk-chosing-html-5-over-flash-for-rich-web-apps.aspx?s=gcndaily_050410.

  • Sébastien Gaillard — 1:07 PM on April 06, 2010

    Hi John,
    “You can debate one format vs. another (e.g. H.264 vs. Ogg Theora)”
    100% agree with you, but Adobe should remember it did not used the good technical vocabulary about codec and video player during years!
    Before Adobe Flash player was compatible with H264, Adobe had used “Flash format” to describe the video player + the video codec at the same time ! The codec was a Sorenson Squeeze or a On2 VP6, but Adobe used “Flash” to describe it during years… that could explain people are confused ;-)
    “You can debate one player vs. another (e.g. Flash Player vs. a Web browser reading HTML5 tags)”
    To debate one player vs another and one codec vs another, we also need to debate :
    -one wrapper (.FLV or .F4V) vs another (.MP4, .MOV) etc.
    -what kind of player: browser only ? standalone player for the OS ? online or offline player ?…
    Best Regards,
    Séb

  • Hugo — 7:37 AM on April 07, 2010

    Some people are starting to mix-up containers (mov, ogg) and codecs (H.264, Theora, VP6).

  • Bluelobe — 5:45 PM on April 09, 2010

    Any reason why when C-Span shifted to Flash video from RealVideo, users like me started encountering problems being able to forward or rewind the videos? Before, with RealVideo, you could just drag the slider and skip boring parts. Now, I have to pray several Our Fathers just hoping it’ll work (and it usually doesn’t)? I still love Adobe InDesign though–I just wish Adobe would start looking at Flash alternative business because it looks like the writing’s on the wall–Flash was made for vector animation, not video, and its current performance problems is a reflection of this.

  • Bluelobe — 5:46 PM on April 09, 2010

    Any reason why when C-Span shifted to Flash video from RealVideo, users like me started encountering problems being able to forward or rewind the videos? Before, with RealVideo, you could just drag the slider and skip boring parts. Now, I have to pray several Our Fathers just hoping it’ll work (and it usually doesn’t)? I still love Adobe InDesign though–I just wish Adobe would start looking at Flash alternative business because it looks like the writing’s on the wall–Flash was made for vector animation, not video, and its current performance problems is a reflection of this.

  • Matt — 11:00 PM on May 04, 2010

    @John Nack – thanks for clarifying this. Couple of questions:
    - if we assume for example that youtube encodes their video with H.264 (and of course serves them as Flash) then in order to serve them as html5 Would they have to reencode them, or does changing container formats not require reencoding?
    - if a site wanted to serve both Flash and html5 versions of a video, assumingly they’d have to host both formats?

  • Matt — 11:03 PM on May 04, 2010

    @John Nack – thanks for clarifying this. Couple of questions:
    - if we assume for example that youtube encodes their video with H.264 (and of course serves them as Flash) then in order to serve them as html5 Would they have to reencode them, or does changing container formats not require reencoding?
    - if a site wanted to serve both Flash and html5 versions of a video, assumingly they’d have to host both formats?
    [There are many flavors of H.264 encoding, but I don't think they'd need to re-encode. Rather, they'd just need to serve up a different viewer based on device/browser configuration. --J.]

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