May 04, 2010

H.264 makes up 66% of web video

According to a TechCrunch article, H.264 is quickly becoming the de-facto standard for video being encoded for the web. Over the last year, H.264 use rose from 31% of all videos (Q2 2009) to 66% in Q1 2010. These figures are from, one of the world's biggest encoding companies, which encoded 5 million videos over the past year for the likes of MTV, Brightcove, Nokia and MySpace.

Over the same period, Flash-encoded video dropped from a share of 69% to 26% (for both Flash VP6 and FLV). Of course, a lot of the H.264 video ended up wrapped in a Flash wrapper, but it is fairly simple to offer H.264 both within Flash and by itself (for iPhones, iPads, other mobile devices and some HTML 5 compliant browsers, such as Safari, Google Chrome and the next version of Internet Explorer, IE9), which is why many sites already use it, such as YouTube (which represents some 40% of all videos on the web), and Vimeo (which hosts any UrbanFoxTV videos).

The fastest growing codec is Ogg Theora – which leapt from nothing to the dizzy heights of 4% in the between Q4 2009 and Q1 2010 (overtaking the aging and fast disappearing FLV format, which uses the old H.263 codec). Theora is a currently free, open source format (that might be challenged by patent holders), and is being adopted by some web browsers for use with HTML 5 video (Chrome, Firefox and Opera). However, Theora currently isn't as advanced as H.264 (it is based on the older VP3 codec). There is also the prospect of the new VP8 being offered as an open source codec – VP8 is being developed by On2 Technologies, which is now owned by Google. There is also the BBC's Dirac open format, which is wavelet based, and at least as efficient as H.264, but that hasn't really been adopted by anyone for web use (it can play back in VLC), although it has high-end uses within broadcasting.

Of course, these figures don't take into account the huge numbers of older videos on the web, which are predominantly Flash. However, as Steve Jobs says, Flash can be a bit of a resource hog – especially on older Macs, and if it were working on mobile devices it would drain your batteries fairly quickly. At present, no mobile phones use Flash (although there is a Lite version), but it is "coming soon" for Android (however long "soon" might take to arrive…). I usually run my browsers with Flash switched off, and it is rare that I want to view something using Flash that can't be viewed using HTML 5, but then I don't play Flash games or greatly miss having ads auto-play as I'm reading a newspaper article.

At the moment it looks like encoding H.264 is the best way of doing video on the web (with the option to wrap it in Flash or use HTML 5), just ensure you keep your original files for encoding in further formats in future.

UPDATE: There is an excellent article at Engadget by Nilay Patel, about H.264 patent licensing and who pays what to whom, and should you be concerned about it. Basically, there are some overly broad terms in the licensing agreements, but this doesn't seem to have any real implications for users (at least not before 2015, and maybe not after that either). The article is one of the best I've seen covering this subject and well worth a read.

David Fox

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