Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Online Video Encoding Formats War: Apple Vs Flash Vs H264 - Infographic

If you haven't heard the news lately, a new technology war has seen the light, and this time the two main fighters are Apple and Adobe, owner of the almost ubiquitous Flash playback video technology used across the web to play video clips. The key argument is that Apple does not want to support Flash to play video on its devices. Neither now nor ever in the future. Given that smartphones and iPhones make up a growing number of the devices playing back video clips from the Internet and that 50% of mobile traffic in the U.S. comes from iPhones, this refusal to support Flash as the default video-playback technology is definitely no good news for Adobe. In this MasterNewMedia report Enrique Serrano focuses on explaining the technological issues and its implications as well as how this new technology war going to impact your personal online video landscape.

Photo credit: Warezgen

Adobe Flash has been for a very long time the only player in the web-based video playback market. Videos, but also widgets, slideshows and many different types of web applications resort to Flash technology to provide reliability, performance and, why not, stunning graphic effects.

It is worth mentioning that Flash is a proprietary format of Adobe Inc., which means that all the companies wanting to make their products Flash-compatible, need to pay royalties to Adobe as well as having no control over its development, future pricing, and so on.

Flash equal to monopoly.

This was pretty much the scenario until Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007. In fact, with a surprising move, Apple said that its brand new mobile devices, the iPhone and the iPod Touch, would have no support for the Flash technology.

The reasons of this choice? Flash was considered to be too resource-intensive and believed to slow down the mobile browsing experience, which Apple intended not to compromise about.

Notwithstanding strong pressures from consumers - who have always considered the lack of Flash as one of the biggest drawbacks of Apple's touch devices - Apple has kept position so far.

Moreover, the introduction of new high-performing web and video standards like H264 and HTML5, strengthened even more the decision of Apple of replacing Flash in favor of open video standards, which users are increasingly embracing.

How this is going to turn out no-one knows, but the blog post from a Platform evangelist at Adobe where he disses Apple and the prompt reply from Steve Jobs himself have shown that the issue is far from being resolved.

What's best for you to do next. Follow the open standards is MasterNewMedia advice while understanding in full what is happening right now and why these two companies are so fiercely fighting.

Immerse yourself in this deluge of visual information created by Enrique Serrano and dissecting in detail the technology war in the video encoding and playback market where Flash, H264, HTML5 and others are fighting to become your future video reference standard.

Here is the in-depth report:




Apple, Flash and H264 - Infographics

by Enrique Serrano

Apple Vs. Adobe: When The War Began


On 12th April 2010 Adobe released the last version of their Flash development suite, CS5, with the capability to export code for iPhone apps.

But four days before this Flash CS5 release, Apple changed its terms of license preventing the Flash-to-iPhone compiler to create iPhone apps.

Additionally, the iPhone and the iPad could never display Flash content.

And according to the latest news from Apple, they will never have Flash support.

So, why doesn't Apple want Flash in their iPhones? And why this is important to understand the market of Internet video and mobile apps?


How Smartphones Have Revolutionized Mobile Browsing


When cell phones and other mobile devices hit the market, they changed our way of communication.

Near the end of the 90's, the first versions of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) were established.

The improvement in both mobile networks and devices allowed mobile access from everywhere to web pages.

But pages served under WAP weren't standard, full working web pages, as they were usually limited to a short list of links and flat text in a monochrome screen. Nowadays, the recent development of smartphones has changed again our way of mobile browsing.

This new generation of intelligent phones has some distinctive characteristics:

  • They provide an enhanced browsing experience. Their improved screens and mobile browsers allow to read standard web pages in full color at a reasonable size.
  • They can run software applications (often called just apps). Their better processors, mobile operating systems, development frameworks, and user interfaces led to a growing catalog of multipurpose apps.

The improvement of mobile networks, together with more affordable flat internet fees offered by mobile telecommunication companies are helping to increase web browsing traffic from these mobile devices.


Why The iPhone Has Disrupted The Mobile Market


Since the release of the first iPhone in 2007, this smartphone became quite popular in the market. In these 3 years more than 40 million of iPhones have been sold.

Apart from a strong marketing campaign, the success of the iPhone is probably due to its innovative tactile screen interface, its wide repertoire of applications and its good web browsing capabilities.

Apple App Store is a growing place where developers publish their apps and where users purchase and download them to their iPhones and iPads. These apps range from music and entertainment to news and business apps and gadgets to increase productivity.

The number of download from the App Store is increasingly growing at a extremely fast pace.

People have downloaded more than 4 billion apps so far since it went online, and the average amount of downloads per day is around 10 million apps. That's around 116 downloads per second.

Without Flash support in their iPhones, people cannot access free online Flash games, so the only choice of iPhone and iPad users is to purchase games and entertainment products in the Apple Store.

Probably the fact that most clearly proves the success and importance of iPhones in Internet browsing is that a 50% of Internet traffic coming from smartphones in the United States is actually coming from iPhones.

Reading traditional web pages in the screen of the iPhone is possible and easy.

Any existing webpage would be quite appropriately rendered in the browser of the iPhone, which behaves nearly like a standard Safari browser.

But it still has an important limitation: The iPhone browser does not have Flash support.




What The iPhone Misses Without Flash


Not having Flash support is a drawback stronger that it might seem at first sight.

Even when Flash it is also used for websites, games and RIAs, its main usage is as an Internet video player.

All Internet video is encoded an decoded following a video encoding standard.

The software applications that perform these video encoding and decoding functions are called codecs.

As most current video standards aren't free, it is necessary to pay royalties to implement a codec.

There's no standard codec for natively playing Internet video in all browsers. This is an objective for the HTML5 standard, but no complete agreement has been reached so far.

Because of this, 75% of Internet video still requires Flash Player to be watched. Adobe Flash Player, installed in web browsers as a third party plug-in, allows the playback of Internet video using several different codecs.

While Adobe currently controls playback of most video online, Apple will probably control a significant part of the mobile web browsing market, as well as a strong market for their mobile phones. That's why both, Adobe and Apple, are so important in shaping the future of the web.


May The H264 Standard Substitute Flash?


While Flash is still the video playback engine of reference, according to the last data, the most actual trends about video encoding aren't using Flash proprietary codecs, but the standard H264 (H264/AVC/MPEG-4 Part 10). This is the same standard used to encode Blu-ray discs.

So Apple states that Flash is no longer necessary, because the latest trend in encoding is H264, which offers superior quality and compression ratios compared to older video codecs.

And iPhones and iPads natively support H264 video through their web browsers, making them capable of playing online video with no need of third party plugins.

Because of its performance and current popularity, H264 has been proposed to be part of the HTML5 standard. If accepted, HTML5 enabled browsers would be able to natively play video without needing third party plugins.

Embedding video in a website would be as easy as using a new "video" tag in HTML.

But it is important to take into account two important details:

  1. H264 is a patented standard (in the countries were patenting software is possible).

    The group called MPEG LA holds the patent. And companies such Apple and Microsoft belong to that group.

  2. Flash also supports H264 since 2007. So the success of H264 doesn't imply the demise of Flash.

    Flash could still be used to play H264 and other videos, apart from its usages as a software to develop apps, games and websites.

While videos free to end-users don't need to pay H264 royalties (at least, till the end of 2015), developers of HTML5 compatible browsers supporting web video would need to pay royalties for using H264.

According to Mozilla, the developers of the Firefox browser, the estimated costs of having H264 support in Firefox would cost them around $5 millions a year.

Any other developer creating encoding or playing apps would still need to pay royalties to Apple and the other companies holding the patent. And from 2015 on, these terms could change again.

H264 isn't the only possible video codec that could be accepted for the HTML5 standard.



Another Alternative To Flash: Ogg Theora


Ogg Theora is one of the alternatives, with the advantage of being a free, open source video codec.

While the performance of H264 seems to be slightly better, the results of using Ogg Theora are quite similar, while its patent free open standard really makes a difference with H264.

Firefox and Opera natively support only Ogg Theora encoded videos.

On the other hand, Apple Safari and Microsoft Internet Explorer (9) natively support only videos encoded in H264.

Both, Microsoft and Apple, belong to the group handling the patent of H264.

Finally, Google Chrome has native support for both, Theora and H264.

There are other third party plugins that allow playback of other video formats in the previous browsers - as the Flash Player is.

As a side note, while Flash Player remains being an additional plugin, Google has announced that it will be bundled with Google Chrome for better integration, reliability and performance, with automated updates.

So far, an experiment run by Vimeo with the videos in their own site measured that:

  • The quality of Theora is quite similar to H264: Even when H264 seems slightly better, there is no significant difference.
  • Most users with web browsers currently capable of watching HTML5 videos have support for Theora - not for H264.



Reasons Why Apple Won't Support Flash


Adobe has been a provider of Apple, and most software from Adobe works in Apple computers.

In fact, a strong part of Adobe's market is composed of Mac users.

Nevertheless, iPhones and iPads have never supported Flash.

And now the official communicates from Apple state that they will never do.

In an official article called "Thoughts on Flash", Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, explained some reasons why they didn't want to include Flash in their products.

His main reasons were as follows:

  • Flash is 100% proprietary.

    While Apple still has many proprietary products, it prefers open source standards for the web related part of their products.

  • Even when some products of Apple cannot access the "full web" as they don't support Flash, these products are getting still most videos on the web. And while they cannot access Flash games, they have plenty of entertainment products available for purchase in their app store.

  • Apple aims for a higher level of reliability, security and performance.

    According to Apple, Flash has a bad security record, is one of the main causes of Mac computers crashing and there is no mobile device performing well with Flash. On top of that, Flash would drain mobile batteries quickly.

  • Flash doesn't support touch devices like iPhone and iPad as it was designed to work with PC's and mice.

  • And the most important reason: If Flash is adapted to export cross browser apps, it would add a third-party layer between the platform and developers, probably hindering progress.


(Wrong) Reasons Why Apple Won't Support Flash


Nevertheless, some of these reasons are rather inaccurate, as the community of Flash developers has promptly explained:

  • Not only Flash is not 100% proprietary, as many of its components are open source (its runtime Tamarin, most of the SWF format, the ECMA Script standard in which ActionScript is based).

    And it is possible to fully code Flash apps using open source components.

  • Flash holds 75% of Internet video, which still is a lot of video, and Flash is actually compatible with H264.

    In a PR effort, Apple needed to remove the blue lego block used as an error message every time they stumbled with a non supported Flash video or app because it was becoming way too common.

  • The performance of Flash depends greatly on the underlying architecture.

    Although the iPhone isn't optimized for Flash, that is something possible to do, taking direct advantage of underlying hardware acceleration features. Nevertheless, this performance still needs to be confirmed for devices supporting Flash (probably, Android devices).

  • Flash can code touch apps: There's a gesture API used for this purpose, and actually, there are more than one hundred of iPhone apps successfully coded using such API.

So it is possible to code apps in Flash and then export them to iPhone with a compiler.

Probably the quality of the resulting apps would speak for itself, giving the developers an additional option about how to develop iPhone apps.

But while exporting Flash apps to iPhone is now technically possible (thanks to Flash CS5), the new Apple license in their SDK forbids this usage. And because of this, Apple is possibly facing an antitrust suit for changing those legal terms in an unfair way to block competition.

Flash is currently present in most Internet enabled desktops.

While the high iPhone sales trend seems to be kept during the next years, there will be a new group of smartphones expected to see the light during later 2010, including Android based devices.

According to the market estimations of Adobe, half of mobile phones will be Flash enabled for 2012, mainly splitting the market between Apple devices and Flash enabled devices.




The Flash Gambit: Is Apple Right?


According to the successful download stats from Apple App Store, it is clear that an iPhone is for more than just calling or browsing.

But it is also true that Flash is for more than video playback.

Flash could be used to develop iPhone apps.

And Apple could face an antitrust suit for changing its license terms preventing the usage of Flash generated apps.

The scope of Flash goes beyond just iPhones and Apple products.

Flash would run in both, PCs and Macs, and its compiler should be able to create cross-platform apps.

Flash IDEs are proprietary and non-free.

Nevertheless, the Flex framework is free and open source, and it can be used with other open source tools (such as Flash Develop) to create Flash apps.

Users cannot upload their apps into the iPhone without a developer license from Apple used to sign these apps. While this is an additional security measure, the cost of this license supposes an additional amount of 99 USD for developers.

Any other tweaking of the iPhone is not possible without canceling the warranty (through a process often referred to as jailbreaking).

While Cocoa, the development environment for iPhone apps by Apple, is distributed for free, it is under a proprietary license and it only runs on Mac.

So developers willing to code apps using Cocoa will still need a Mac, an iPhone and a developer license to deploy their apps.

The hardware manufactured by Apple only represents around a minoritary 5% of the market, and average Mac equipments are around 1000 USD more expensive than their average PC counterparts.

So even using a free development environment, the average cost to develop Apple apps is higher than the equivalent cost to develop cross-platform apps using Adobe products.

Flash Player cannot be fully open source, as it contains other proprietary components whose license is paid by Adobe (amongst them, the H264 codec by Apple).

There are other truly open source Flash Player alternatives (like gnash), although they have some limited support of the features from Flash Player 8 through 10.

Tamarin is the ActionScript 3 runtime engine, given by Adobe to Mozilla, and being the second biggest software donation received by this project. This runtime is a major part of the Flash Player, and would enable developing a high-performance open source implementation of ActionScript 3 including open source compilers and interpreters.

Theora is completely open source, so it will remain open, and now it is distributed as a free alternative for video encoding and playback. Although some rumors started by Apple pointed it as infringing the copyright laws, no lawsuit was filed against the company yet.

H264 is under a software patent held by MPEG LA.

While video that is free for end users is exempt of royalties, these license terms might change at the end of 2015. Any other charges remain in place.

And both web browsers that only support H264 (Safari and Internet Explorer) are owned by companies belonging to this MPEG LA group holding the H264 patent (Apple and Microsoft respectively).




By banning Flash from the iPhone, Apple can:

  • Fully control the development environment of their iPhone apps. That's a way to foster the usage of their own IDEs as well as their required proprietary hardware infrastructure.

  • Remove the competition from online Flash games.

    With no Flash Player support in their devices, iPhone and iPad users have no other choice that buying entertainment products from Apple App Store.

  • Impose their H264 video standard as a "de facto" video standard.

    If H264 makes its way to the HTML5 standard, the companies holding the patent (including Apple) would be gaining more royalties from the makers of encoding and playing apps.

HTML5 has not chosen a video standard so far.

It is reasonable to think that a fully open standard is preferred (as Theora is), so web browser developers, video encoders (and eventually, end users) won't need to pay related royalties.

The iPhone is a device successfully sold, and the current trend of their iPad seems similar (around 1 million sold in the first month).

The market for iPhone and iPad apps is strongly growing as well.

On the other hand, Flash Player is still important for web video, with a strong presence in Internet enabled devices.

Flash is more than a video player, as it can also create other online and cross-platform apps. In the future, this will lead to split the market between Flash enabled mobile devices and Apple devices.


Infographics and content originally prepared by "Enrique Serrano for Treble Click, and first published on May 5th, 2010 as Apple, Flash and H264 - Infographics. Republished with full permission from the author on MasterNewMedia - May 27th, 2010.

About Enrique Serrano


Enrique Serrano is a freelance programmer and designer. He was IT department director at Hibrida communication studio. During 2005 he developed web portals and management systems for Germinus XXI consulting. Enrique also worked as a researcher and programmer at UPM during 2004. He graduated at the University of Madrid in telecommunication engineering and holds four master courses on design.

Photo credits:
All images by Enrique Serrano

Enrique Serrano -
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posted by on Thursday, May 27 2010, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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