We have yet another standards battle on our hands — you might say screens, as it concerns Web video. Or we might watch our wallets, as the fight is about who gets the biggest share of the money spent delivering multimedia on our computers, smartphones and, soon, TVs.
My money is on HTML 5, co-opted and promoted by Google and Apple.
First, do we really care about standards? Does it matter that YouTube uses Flash or H.264, that Microsoft is trying to promote Silverlight or that Apple, more prominently, and Google, less vocally, are pushing an open standard called HTML 5?
The answer comes in two parts: we need standards like trains need a single track width across the network, first, and, second, standards are often abused, made into a way to pick pockets.
There is no charge for a train track width standard, but a license fee is required for building cell phones using the CDMA standard. (I won’t go again over well-covered ground, over the history of Windows, Office and Wintel.) The secret, there, is to create critical mass for a way to do something, for said manner to become a standard. Then, you charge for the right to use the method itself or, less directly, for something needed to benefit from it.
For example, if Microsoft manages to make Silverlight a or the Web video/multimedia standard, good things will happen and bad ones will be avoided – from Microsoft’s perspective, that is.
Let’s pause for a moment and look at HTML and browsers. (Experts readers, a.k.a geeks and nerds, ought to avert their eyes.) HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language. The “markup” part stems from the days of physical paper, it is a way to describe a page. Here we have a paragraph, we use this font, this size, this color, some text, end of paragraph. Here we put a picture, and so on.
The “hypertext” is the real killer, Tim Berners-Lee’s invention, with a reference to Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu.
The deceptively simple idea uses the Web addressing system to create Universal Resource Locators, URL, such as http: //www.example.com/topics/recipe_for_pain_perdu.
Once you have URLs, you create links to other pages, to anywhere, anything on the Web. This yields the explosion of knowledge, entertainment (and money…) still going on today.
Completing the picture, so to speak, we have the browser, a computer program that interprets (renders is the tech term) HTML statements and displays text, pictures on our screen.
Things get really interesting, here, because there was no despot enforcing anything, on the one hand, and HTML lacked descriptive power, on the other hand. Extensions flourished out of the need for animations, video, e-mail add-ons… The extensions are often called plug-ins. The absence of a dictator allowed competing and sometimes conflicting extensions to flourish and several HTML interpreters to appear.
In the meantime, the W3C consortium, a standard body with great moral authority but no enforcement powers, worked on successive versions of HTML, struggling to cope with the explosion of creativity and greed, trying to avoid the babelization of the Web, or another Microsoft takeover.
The latter, as we know, took place when Microsoft made their browser the de facto standard by virtue, if that’s the right word, of tying it to Windows. The main competitor, Netscape’s Navigator, died; others such as Opera struggled to stay alive.
But, less than a decade later, Navigator is reborn as Firefox from the Mozilla foundation, Google is developing its Chrome browser and Apple ships Safari, a strictly standards compliant browser, according to the well-known Acid test. These browsers, Apple’s included, work or will work on Windows and Macs; most also work on Linux.
Returning to Silverlight, the good things Microsoft wants to make happen are rich, fast, reliable multimedia content on Windows. More specifically, we all believe we’ll watch more and more video on our PC (and smartphones). Microsoft wants to make sure “everything” runs and runs well on Windows. If “everything” is encoded using the Silverlight standard, Microsoft doesn’t run the risk losing control of video on the Web, of inferior performance on their platform because they lack the inside knowledge they enjoyed with Explorer running on Windows.
And, to better control the platform and make a few bucks in the process, they sell their Visual Studio tools, largely regarded as the best in the business.
Moving to Adobe, they have Flash, the multimedia platform they acquired with Macromedia. Their pitch is the same as Microsoft’s, just search and replace Silverlight with Adobe Air. Develop the next generation of Web applications using Air, generating mixed mode Cloud/Desktop applications. By mixed mode I mean applications that will keep working, albeit with some features missing, when the Internet connection is absent.
For their platform, Adobe offers showcases such Photoshop Express, making a good pitch for Air’s expressive power. Just as Microsoft does, Adobe wants to stay on top of the next generation: rich media, video developments for the Web. Adobe also expects licensing and tools revenues. But the most important motivation is fear of becoming a second fiddle, of letting others do to it what they, Adobe, want to do to others.
We now turn to Apple, commonly labeled as the proprietary company, for its ferocious protection of its OS. Yet, for its browser, Apple claims compliance to W3C standards. And, for video, it promotes the use of HTML 5, this in apparent concert with Google.
In part, this is because HTML 5 provides the improved expressive power, security and storage required for modern Web applications. In other words, Apple and Google believe HTML 5 works for them.
Just as important, this is freedom from games (supposedly) played by Adobe and Microsoft. In addition, HTML 5 allegedly consumes fewer hardware resources. For Apple, this supports video on their smartphones, their most important business now, without having to use Flash, deemed too power-hungry for current iPhones – they use H.264, instead. (Keen observers have noticed the occasional warning on Macs regarding the slowdown apparently caused by the Flash browser plug-in…)
Google is of a similar mind, for their Chrome browser, for their huge amount of video content on YouTube and their Android platform.
Neither company plans development tools revenue. And Apple is only interested in making money through hardware, everything else being a means to that end, from Mac OS X to iTune and the App Store or iLife applications. (The company charges for expensive applications with a narrower “pro” market such as Final Cut. Why it charges for more mainstream fare such as iWork is a puzzle.)
Where does all this leave us?
If I had to make a bet, I’d say HTML 5 wins a larger portion of Web video implementations, that is without Adobe or Microsoft plug-ins. Google and Apple’s smartphones will provide much momentum for “more standard” (note the irony) implementations.
Silverlight is a capable platform from a capable and determined company, one that isn’t giving up easily. But, as smartphones become the next PC, Microsoft’s dominance of the “old” version might not translate to the new truly personal genre.
As for Adobe, I’m not sure their good product, a modern descendant of their successful Flash, will assume anything but an also-ran position. –JLG
Bonus feature, as I referred to nerds above: see Obama as the first nerd president. A fun talk (written and delivered) by John Hodgman, the PC in Apple’s commercials.