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.
- 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.