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May 25, 2010
With my professional life having quieted down a lot recently, I finally got a chance to play with something I’ve been meaning to try since the winter: HTML5 video on Ubuntu. The results made me pretty happy.
Steve Jobs and I don’t agree on much. But one of the rare points on which we see eye-to-eye is Flash. Jobs’s recent spate of highly public litanies against Adobe may be characteristically hypocritical (Jobs has famously condemned Adobe for being closed and proprietary), but they’re also accurate, insofar as Jobs points to flash as buggy, slow and insecure.
True, Adobe has done a lot to improve flash with the 10.1 release, which finally provides video offloading so that playing a YouTube video won’t give your CPU a heart attack. But that feature, of course, is supported only Windows; Linux users are left out in the cold. And we don’t have anyone of Steve Jobs’s stature to advocate for us.
As a result, my six-month-old netbook with a hyperthreaded Atom processor and 2 gigabytes of memory can’t play Hulu videos at its fullscreen 1024×600 resolution. The Core 2 Duo in my desktop can, but only with great effort.
HTML5, of course, has the potential to save us all from the misery of CPU-gobbling videos embedded using flash. The tag in the new standard allows websites to embed video that can be decoded much more easily.
Granted, HTML5 video remains encumbered by patent issues, since the H.264 codec is not free. Then again, neither is Flash. In an ideal world we’d all be using Ogg codecs for our multimedia files and OpenDocument format for our documents, but the world is not ideal.
With the licensing caveats of HTML5 video in mind, I downloaded Google Chrome so that I could give the new format a try. Unfortunately, Firefox doesn’t support HTML5 video using the H.264 format, precisely because of the patent issues surrounding the H.264 codec.
There’s not much to say about my actual experience playing HTML5 video in Chrome, other than that it worked great, and with little effort. After enabling HTML5 on Youtube, videos were decoded extremely smoothly and with only about half the CPU load of flash videos. Vimeo also worked seamlessly with HTML5 enabled. The only drawback on both sites is that fullscreen playback is not yet supported, due to browser limitations.
Much to my dismay, Hulu has yet to announce plans to support HTML5 in desktop browsers. If that changes, I’ll have gotten everything I want out of life.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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