HTML5: Native Video, DRM and Plugins

by Stephanie Rewis on October 13, 2010

I was reading a discussion on the W3C Bug tracker about native video and whether it should, or should not, provide DRM to protect video content. In the process, the point was made by John Foliot that Apple is presenting their own answers in their browsers and devices to the DRM issue (emphasis mine):

> The question of DRM within the media formats supported by browsers is a
> separate issue to be addressed in a different forum, but as I said, I'm fairly
> sure there will be strong resistance to it.

Really? I have it on first person confirmation that currently Apple is
promoting "...H.264 with the m3u8 format for HTTP streaming with optional AES
encryption..." to commercial content producers in North America. Either that
gets supported directly in the browser, or gets handed off to a third party
(QT)player... Frankly at this point I could care less if Opera, Mozilla and
Google see this as a problem or not - it's your business models, not mine.
Apple will profit by selling their iDevices that *do* support encryption, as
will Roku, Wii, X-Box and other companies who understand the real business
needs at the intersection of the multi-billion dollar industry that is "the
Internet" (delivering content over the global network) with the multi-billion
dollar industry that is the Entertainment Industry. 

My best guess, without having all the information personally available, is that the statement above (placed in bold type) means that if you’re using a Mac, DRM is supported directly in the browser because more info

QuickTime is built in. If you’re using a PC, just as happens currently with native video, you must install QuickTime to view it.

Isn’t a plugin just a plugin?

QuickTime is a plugin. So the question I keep asking is this one — Apple refuses to allow the Flash plugin on their devices (and until very recently also refused Adobe the hooks they needed into the OS to speed Flash up like it has on a PC). Much of the web that needs video is already standardized on Flash. They seem to be attempting to move people to their plugin (which they can either build into their own products or ask people to download—as they do Flash now).

Was native multimedia added to HTML5 to make plugins extinct?

The W3C says the co-existence of plugins and native multimedia are par for the course and expected. One was never meant to kill the other—the embed element was even made valid and acceptable in HTML5. Thus, Apple’s stance that HTML5 multimedia should be the only solution—and it’s been taken to the extreme by blocking Flash altogether on their devices—then they circle back around with their plugin to provide the features that Flash already provided… Sorry, it seems disingenuous at best and anti-trust/anti-competition at worst.

Why don’t I hear people discussing this? Am I making up the gravity of what’s happening? Am I seeing something others haven’t noticed? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? I’m starting to wonder…

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron Gustafson October 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

There are quite a few things at work here, so I’ll try to take them a little at a time.

1) I, personally, don’t think formats (apart from those they oversee, like HTML, etc.) should be within the purview of the W3C at least so far as specs are concerned. So, for instance, the W3C should create a mechanism for embedding video or fonts or whatever, but not make any sort of prescription for the format that should be supported by that mechanism. That should be something the browser vendors discuss amongst themselves, with (hopefully) the best format(s) winning out. You know, like betamax. ;-)

In other words, if one browser wants to support DRM with their native (or embedded) video or audio component and another doesn’t, that’s at their discretion. That’s a feature, just like HD video. The W3C shouldn’t say they need to support HD video, but ones that do will win out. The same may prove true of DRM in native video and audio tech, I really can’t say.

2) Yes, Apple does maintain their video component separately as QuickTime. It’s honestly not all the surprising given that it is used for a number of other things in the underlying OS that rely on it. On non-Apple hardware, QuickTime is a plug-in. It’s the same situation with Windows Media Player. It’s bundled into the OS on Windows and to use it on another platform requires a plugin of some sort (or an a plug-in to QuickTime, but that’s another story).

Apple chooses to use the QuickTime (i.e. native) video component to render videos on OSX and iOS. By default, Microsoft does the same with Media Player in Windows. I don’t think anyone can fault them for that.

3) Now, when you factor Flash into the whole picture, things get a little more interesting. Flash is a plug-in everywhere (unless there’s an Air tablet out there I haven’t seen). Apple’s decision to block Flash on iOS devices seems (to me) a two-fold decision: 1) they were concerned about overall performance (which was probably more of a concern on the original iPhone than it would be now) and 2) they enjoyed the chance to take a jab at Adobe.

The second one may be me reading into matters a bit too much, but from the outside, Apple (and folks in the Apple camp) seem to have an inherent dislike of Flash, especially Flash-based interactions. That seemed to be one of the major reasons Apple originally nixed the creation of iPhone apps on non-Apple architecture.

I have no idea why they feel that way honestly, I’ve seen just as many crappy apps and browser-based games made on Apple tools as I’ve seen crappy Flash games and such. Whenever you offer the tools to the masses, we’ll use them. And I can’t really be mad at the people who produce the crappy stuff… they’re learning. Lord knows my first websites were absolute garbage.

Anyway, so back to your question: is Apple’s push for people to adopt their technologies over other companies’ technologies in a veil of standards disingenuous? In a word: yes. I mean look at their “HTML5 Showcase.” Most of it was built on stuff they’re *proposing* to the W3C to be adopted as part of CSS3. Some of it will likely make it in. Some of it may not. It’s standards-based, but only in the most liberal sense of the word.

On the video front, however, I think Apple’s only real concern is *their* customers, which is why they don’t see an issue with QuickTime being a plug-in on non Apple devices. If you use iTunes on Windows, you probably installed QuickTime. If you use Safari on Windows, you probably installed QuickTime too. If you are the recipient of content Apple is peddling, you’re probably using QuickTime. Any company in their position would likely do the same thing.

Now as to whether or not it’s an anti-trust thing… I can’t really say. To me, it doesn’t feel quite that bad yet. Flash is still available on Apple computers, just not their mobile devices. But they aren’t the only ones not supporting Flash off the desktop. And even some of those non-desktop devices that do support Flash don’t support any recent Flash version or only support Flash Lite. Take Opera for the Wii, for instance. They support Flash, but only the version they could license for embedding at the time (which I believe was Flash 7).

I certainly don’t blame you for feeling a little flustered by the current state of things because it does often seem like Apple is picking on Adobe (much as everyone else picks on Microsoft). And, in my opinion, Apple is a bit disingenuous when it comes to their stance on standards. Sure, they’re out in front doing some awesome things, but making something and submitting it to the W3C doesn’t make it a web standard any more than buying a Dalmatian makes me a fireman.

Rick Lamers October 23, 2010 at 12:51 pm

I think Quicktime is just as much of a plugin as Flash is. Quicktime requires no installation on OSX and iOS but Flash doesn’t require installation when Google Chrome is installed. If Apple only reason to reject Flash was about that fact that it’s a plugin I think that’s wrong reasoning. However they say its about the fact that it’s a plugin and about the performance issues.

I don’t know about you guys but I thank Flash does have performance issues, the lag(low FPS) it has on average hardware Windows PC’s is sometimes quite stunning to me. Maybe that’s because some people don’t know how to develop great Flash applications but I think Apple does have a point.

But rejecting Flash because it’s a plugin and say lets use Quicktime instead is just stupid in my opinion, because that’s also a plugin for many people.

Derek Nugent December 9, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Come on the Apple folks make ground breaking and great stuff but is there any other reason from banning Flash other than maintaining a gate to force a subscription to the iPhone Dev account? What other reason could it be? You must pay the toll to play on mobile! Other wise it’s traditional web stuff only.

HTML 5 indeed!

Patrice December 24, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Please link your new tuts about html5 videos…
Very helpful.

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