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HTML5 Video: Unplugging the Plug-Ins

HTML5 Video: Unplugging the Plug-Ins
Vidhu Shekhar Pandey - Lead Engineer | November 25, 2013

Online video players have become an integral part of modern Internet browsing. With the rapid growth of smart phones, tablets and smart TVs, streaming video content over the Web has reached a new dimension.  It is predicted that video alone will consume nearly 69 percent of the total Internet traffic over the next five years. The popularity of over-the-top (OTT) video services like YouTube, Netflix and Hulu is redefining the mode of video delivery and opening up new business models over the Internet. In such a scenario, it is very important to choose the right set of video platforms and players for wider market reach and monetization to stay ahead of the competition.

At present, Internet browsers mostly rely on native players like Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight or Apple’s Quicktime to play the online streaming videos. Today, the support for premium features like advertisement insertion, high definition playback, closed captioning, adaptive bit rate (ABR) streaming, social sharing and analytics have become a must for these online players to enrich the content viewing experience of the user and gain commercial benefits. Although these players provide such rich features with multiple-screening support, they need to be installed as plug-ins to the browsers for different platforms, which is often considered fussy. Security concerns are also associated with these players, as they run outside the scope of the browser. Moreover, the use of proprietary media formats and streaming protocols creates a nightmare for content publishers to choose the right player and video delivery platform to reach a wider audience and open new revenue streams.


To address these shortcomings, HTML5 provides a set of video specifications as a step toward convergence of media technologies. With these specifications, the browsers now have a built-in video player that can be controlled and customized using JavaScript APIs. The aim is to provide a consistent online video playback experience across browsers and device platforms without the use of an external plug-in player. Today, recent versions of most browsers are HTML5 compliant, and the reach is roughly 85% of the total market share, including desktop and mobile platforms. However, these basic HTML5 video APIs are still not acceptable in professional applications because they lag behind in some very essential features, including:

  • Security
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) support
  • Adaptive streaming

Recently, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been drafting new specifications to overcome these challenges and bring HTML5 video up to par with industry standards.

Media Source Extensions (MSE) is introduced as an extension to HTMLMediaElement to facilitate more control over the media streams, and thus allow the flexibility to introduce advanced features such as adaptive streaming, seeking, time shifting and captioning. 

Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) is aimed at providing control of playback of protected content and to facilitate interaction with the DRM systems, which is essential for content providers to prevent copyright infringement. This, however,  faced criticism from the open group community, who fear it would threaten the philosophy of openness of the Web.

Web cryptography allows cryptographic operations in web applications, such as hashing, signature generation and verification, and encryption and decryption. These APIs provide a standard means of secure communication, such as authentication, storing data with remote service providers, document signing, etc.

The idea behind these extensions is to standardize the basic essential functionalities that can be built inside the browser and to provide maximum flexibility to the application programs to control these functionalities through JavaScript APIs.

The drive toward HTLM5 is clearly seen with Netflix, Google and Microsoft actively participating in these specifications. While Netflix wants to do away with the Silverlight plug-in and move to an HTML5-based player, YouTube has already started experimenting with beta version of its website  leveraging the HTML5 video capabilities ( Microsoft’s inclination toward HTML5 and JavaScript is quite apparent in its latest Windows 8 version, featuring the Metro style applications.

Another step toward this convergence is the emerging standard of MPEG Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (MPEG-DASH). It is proposed for standardizing the adaptive streaming protocol that would allow a standard-based client to stream content from any standard-based server, thereby enabling interoperability between servers and clients of different vendors. This will end the monopoly of the proprietary HLS, HDS, RTMP and Smooth Streaming protocols. With HTTP as the preferred protocol, it has a good prospect of being widely accepted, and is also free from security concerns. It is designed to handle on-demand, live and time-shift applications and support for ad insertion, encryption and DRM is also addressed.

However, at present, these specifications are still nascent, and their implementation in browsers from different vendors on different platforms varies significantly, leading to fragmented support for HTML5 features. A lack of consensus on an audio/video container format and codec support is another area of concern. Google Chrome provides good support for the new media extensions and DASH specifications in its latest version, while this support can only be seen in Internet Explorer 11 on the Windows 8.1 platform at present. Mozilla has shown partial support, while Safari and Opera are still far behind.

Here are some recent trends seen in online media delivery and playback due to these developments:

  • There is a remarkable transition from plug-in to non-plug-in based players, especially on mobile platforms, with Flash withdrawing its support for mobile devices
  • JavaScript libraries for players built on top of HTML5 video APIs are becoming more prominent; they  encapsulate a neat fallback mechanism to switch to native plug-ins for unsupported features on specific platforms, maintaining a consistent look and feel. This hybrid approach is here to stay for some time until HTML5 specifications and their support in browser engines matures fully, and the feature gaps with their traditional counterparts are closed.
  • Cloud-based video players are on the rise, and provide hassle-free JavaScript libraries that are upgraded periodically, keeping pace with technological changes and fragmentation issues.  Sublime, Brightcove and Longtail are some major players that offer a comprehensive video platform with video editing, storage, publishing and transcoding services exposed through RESTful APIs.
  • HTML5 video is venturing into embedded platforms as well, and its applicability is now visible on the panels of in-car entertainment systems and multi-function printers
  • MPEG-DASH is being endorsed by major companies and is gaining momentum in popular streaming servers and browsers. Its capabilities were demonstrated recently in the first live trial streaming of the London Olympics in 2012.

In my opinion, HTML5 video is definitely on the verge of transforming the online video ecosystem.  MPEG-DASH, together with HTML5 video, is poised to become the standard for video publishing on the Web, with JavaScript gaining dominance in user interface development in the coming years. So the time has come to realize the potential of these advancements and to invest ahead and play the music of HTML5 unplugged! Want to know more about HCL's Media & Entertainment services? Visit this section now.


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