• Going Flash-Free with Video: Transitioning Successfully

    As web browsers move rapidly to sunset their support for Flash, companies that rely on Flash for video playback are being forced to make changes. Apple has led the charge in driving the need for this change by disabling Flash by default in Safari 10, and Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft’s Edge are quickly following suit. Some media companies migrated to HTML5 video players in early 2016 in anticipation of these industry-wide changes, but others have remained in a ‘wait-and-see’ mode to see if Flash really is going away.

    Companies that haven’t moved to an HTML5 video player are now stuck between a rock and a hard-place. For them, its either risk the impact of Flash being disabled and react as needed, or remove this risk at the expense of making this migration an immediate priority. The reticence of those that remain reliant on Flash has to do with not being able to properly evaluate the risk and effort involved.

    We’ve been involved closely in this transition with our customers, providing us a diverse and holistic view of what all is involved. Here are the major things you can expect, and why moving to HTML5 video sets your company up for future success.

    What it’ll take to go Flash-free
    Moving from a Flash-centric video experience to an HTML5-based experience does require a variety of considerations across your operating business to ensure you are ready to go Flash-free. For example, Yahoo spent a year in a well thought through transition, with extensive internal R&D. The New York Times approached the task with a similar seriousness, first understanding the broad implications specific to their business before making plans. Their migration was thorough, considering when and if video reprocessing would be needed. They also understood the impact on their video ad inventory, and worked through the logistical and technical issues of moving that forward. These are brands with extensive, business-specific technology investments into video. Companies like Ooyala have made similar investments in the last several years to prepare for this change. If you are using a video technology solution, most of these considerations are taken care of for you.

    Yet there are still a variety of dimensions to account for, particularly because this change involves moving from a closed environment (Flash) to an open environment (HTML5).

    Moving to the Open HTML5 Video Environment
    When moving to open ecosystems, there is a lot less hand-holding available to brands when compared to using proprietary technologies. As a point of reference, consider the support available from Apple and Google when building iOS and Android apps. Apple and Google have a lot of built-in support to help ease the learning curve to develop and maintain your custom apps. They have built out this support infrastructure because they have much to gain in having millions of apps in their app stores. HTML5 is not a proprietary technology, so no single entity is incentivized to make sure you are successful with HTML5 video. By contrast, Adobe was the direct beneficiary of mass adoption of Flash, and had the incentive to support it becoming the ubiquitous video solution for the web. As a result, media companies are largely on their own to figure out how to best operate in an HTML5 video. It is perhaps most analogous to the responsive-design website design trend; best-practices took a while to develop, and it’s still an evolving trend. Best practices for HTML5 video will evolve similarly over time, yet already much is known about what works well today.

    Additionally, for companies that monetize with ads, they require the cooperation of advertising partners in order to make the transition smooth. If media companies don’t work in tandem with their advertising partners, they risk eroding their advertising revenues due to technical incompatibilities. These can range from impacting performance playback to big drops in ad fill rates. Yet again, the industry as a whole has provided a smooth path to ensuring this transition goes well, if the parties involved are invested in making that happen.

    Considerations for your own Flash-Free Migration

    HTML5 Player: Speed and Performance
    At first brush, an HTML5 player presents a lightweight alternative to its bulky Flash counterpart. Measuring the player loads will almost universally favor the HTML5 player. However, this isn’t the whole story. Flash has the advantage of operating in a separate world beyond the browser, and that is relative to the rest of a webpage. That is, the HTML5 video player becomes a new (relatively heavy) webpage entity that utilizes JavaScript connections to function. Most websites today have a lot of other things making JavaScript calls inside a given web page that compete for the same browser resources. For example, JavaScript in your page that makes connections to services like Google Analytics, JQuery, NewRelic, Facebook, and DoubleClick all compete with the HTML5 video player as they queue up connection requests. As a result, the relatively light-weight HTML5 player can actually be much slower compared to a Flash Player, simply due to encountering all of these competing connections when trying to act on a video play request.

    There’s no easy answer here - it’s the nature of operating with open web-browser environment. However, cleaning up unneeded JavaScript code in your website is something that can be highly beneficial - not just for the HTML5 video player, but your website’s speed in general. Flash was able to hide a lot of poor website code hygiene when it comes to video play experience. When adopting HTML5-based players, it’s also a good time to evaluate your site overall. A simple test from website speed test utilities such as Pingdom can quickly reveal areas that impact your site’s performance. What is uncovered there now can directly impact the time it takes to start up an HTML5 video playback experience as well.

    HTML5 Player: Security
    Moving from a Flash to HTML5-based video player also introduces, and enforces, SSL security rules. That is, if your site runs on a secure domain (HTTPS), it will not be able to play unsecured video assets (HTTP streams). The Flash environments allowed to mix unsecured content on secured sites. This is part of the reason for Flash’s earned reputation of being a security risk and accelerated its demise. As a result, when moving to an HTML5 player, your site will have to comply with security standards - which is a good thing for everybody. However, it means migration to an HTML5 video player also involves an evaluation of your website’s security with respect to video content to ensure SSL is applied end-to-end. This is part of an overall trend across ecosystems, such as Apple forcing all connections in iOS apps to run over HTTPS starting in January, 2017.

    To Reprocess or Not To Reprocess Content?
    The video stream container formats that work in a Flash environment will not always work with an HTML5 player (excluding a Flash fallback option, which requires that the HTML5 player actually provides Flash fallback and Flash is enabled in the browser). Reprocessing is another word for re-transcoding video content. This is a processor-intensive task that involves a significant amount of time and cost planning. One of the first considerations in a Flash-to-HTML5 migration is identifying if and what video assets to reprocess. If you already are serving a lot of content to mobile devices, you likely already have streaming formats that work in an HTML5 player (i.e. HLS). Reprocessing to achieve higher resolutions may still be of interest. This is a baseline approach for your newest, most often viewed content. However, if you have terabytes of video that has minimal ongoing interest with your audience, you may choose to simply offer that content in a basic HTML5-compatible format for playback, like MP4.

    If your content involves Flash-based DRM, such as Adobe Access, there’s no question - you will need to reprocess your video content to enable playback in a Flash-free world.

    Video Ads: Stream Format Compatibility
    Similar to your main video content, the format of the ad creative that gets inserted into your playback experience needs consideration. Unfortunately, a Flash-free world is a major shift for video advertisers as well. Specifically, Flash environments allow for interactivity to be built into ad creatives, enabling a variety of options to establish attribution and allows advertisers to directly track ad performance. While the HTML5 video ad ecosystem is largely at parity with Flash in this respect, conversion of ad assets between these two ecosystems isn’t always possible. As a result, ad creative workflows have to undergo the shift to HTML5 video-centric utilities as well, and it’s an expensive one for them. Luckily, this transition is already underway but it is an extensive effort that will take the industry some time to complete.

    Video Ads: The Learning Curve of Flash to HTML5
    One of the most important aspects of a successful migration to an HTML5-first video playback experience is ensuring everybody understands the technical considerations. On the advertiser side, they need to optimize for their ads being formatted properly in an HTML5 world. While the standards have been in place for a while, the nuances of following the VAST standards that enable issue-free ad playback are proving to be far from trivial.

    In the meantime, there will be a transition period that creates a bad combination - an HTML5 player and VPAID 1.0 (Flash-based) ads. This combination creates the need for a sequence of inefficient events to make the two compatible. Skipping the technical explanation and jumping to what this generally means in practice: either your ads are much slower to load and users get annoyed, or the ad timeouts trigger much more often and your ad fill rates drop. In essence, mixing an HTML5 player and lots of Flash ad inventory either hurts your bottom line or drives audience churn higher. If you have the luxury of not serving VPAID 1.0 ads into your HTML5 videos and still getting good fill rates, you are in a great position to have HTML5 video work well for you.   

    With the death of Flash on the horizon, many media companies now risk real impact to their business operations as browsers finally roll out changes to deprecate Flash support. Yet even for media brands well-prepared for migrating to an HTML5-first video playback experience, enabling the move may still involve some important decisions and considerations. It’s now a foregone conclusion that using HTML5 players for video will soon be necessary, and it’s getting urgent. Companies that monetize video content need to have concrete plans for when they will migrate, as well as a good understanding of how that will impact their business when they do make the move. If done well, the migration to HTML5 video can have a minimal impact on both revenues and operations. Once successfully migrated to HTML5 video technologies, these companies now directly benefit from being forward-compatible with the innovations of the HTML5 video ecosystem, while leaving behind the security risks of the Flash ecosystem.