• How to Navigate the Video Format Battlefield

    Today I'm pleased to offer a guest post from Jeff Malkin, president of Encoding.com. With all the recent news around video codecs, formats and corporate battles, the world is getting increasingly complicated for content providers looking to benefit from the shift to online video. Encoding.com is in the middle of this action and today Jeff cuts through the noise and provides some recommendations for success.

    How to Navigate the Video Format Battlefield  
    by Jeff Malkin

    For content publishers and consumers, there is chaos in the video ecosystem, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. No doubt you've been reading about HTML5 vs. Flash vs. Silverlight (and recently, WebM), Apple vs. Adobe, H.264 vs. VP8, iPhone vs. Android, Do-it-Yourself vs. OVP.

    Whether serving tens or thousands of videos, maximizing viewership with reasonably high-quality videos across web and mobile devices is the new imperative.  With so many permutations of video codecs, formats, containers and features, it's confusing to design a video workflow that's cost-effective, flexible to change with the evolving formats and scalable to meet your growth requirements.  With this post, I offer a couple of recommendations to help simplify the array of options currently available. 

    Case in point: Just when it appeared that H.264 was emerging as the video codec leader, primarily because of YouTube support and strong backing by Apple on its devices, Google went and threw an open-sourced VP8 codec into the ring via the recently announced WebM project, a new video format launched by Google with support from other leading industry players such as Mozilla, Opera Software, Brightcove and Encoding.com.

    While both H.264 and VP8 are good quality codecs, only VP8 is currently royalty-free and therefore has a great opportunity to emerge as the new leader within the next year or two.  However, for web distribution today, we recommend encoding your videos using the H.264 video codec in an .mp4 container.  This is a high-quality output format already supported by Flash, and the leading HTML5 browsers including Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer v9.

    WebM is a great shot in the arm for proponents of HTML5 who are pushing for plugin-less video viewing and a more seamless integration with rich media web applications.   But the lack of unified HTML5 standards across browsers has hampered its growth.  Adobe’s Flash, on the other hand, with deep market penetration and a robust feature set, remains the dominant technology for consuming web-based video.

    Our recommended approach for HTML5 supporters who want to ensure users can view your videos via a slick user experience is to write code, or utilize a commercial platform, to detect the user’s browser for HTML5 compatibility, and if not supported, launches a Flash player.  If you want to get fancy, you can utilize the Flash Media Server to detect your users’ bandwidth connections during video playback and switch to a higher or lower bit-rate version mid-stream to ensure the highest quality video is being served without causing buffering issues.

    Adding to the complexity of video format options are the various mobile device requirements.  Yes, Apple’s iPhone OS and Google’s Android OS - the dominant mobile platforms for mobile video consumption - support our recommended encode format using the H.264 codec in an .mp4 container delivered via HTML5 in Safari and Chrome.  However, if you’re delivering video via applications on the iPhone / iPad, Apple now requires publishers to prepare video in its proprietary and complex HTTP Streaming format.  For this, we suggest utilizing a video encoding service or video platform to manage.  To support the plethora of feature-phones already in the market, videos should be encoded to the 3GP format for the most universal coverage.

    The “winners” in the video format battle will reap billions of dollars as their influence and market dominance in the video ecosystem rises.  This simple truth means the utopia of a single, standardized video format across all web and mobile devices will not be realized - not soon, not ever.  In other words, for the foreseeable future, you will need to support multiple video formats to capitalize on your revenue potential across the various internet-connected devices.  

    The good news is that there is a mature ecosystem of video tools and service providers that can help.  The availability of open-source content management systems, video encoding services and cloud storage providers has dramatically simplified the development effort required to create and manage a powerful, flexible and cost-efficient video workflow.

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