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Hulu to Keep the Flash Dance Going

Hulu to Keep the Flash Dance Going

The video site Hulu says it isn't ready yet to make the jump from Flash to HTML5 -- or rather, HTML 5 isn't ready for it yet. Though companies like Microsoft and Apple call the HTML5 standard the future of the Web, Hulu says Adobe's Flash is still more suitable for its buffering, reporting and performance needs. Hulu also announced new features to boost video appearance and ad relevance.

By Richard Adhikari
05/14/10 11:36 AM PT

Hulu stepped into the Adobe-Apple war Thursday with the announcement that it's sticking to Flash for now.

"We continue to monitor developments on HTML5, but as of now it doesn't yet meet all of our customer needs," Hulu VP of Product Eugene Wei wrote on the company's blog.

Wei also announced updates to Hulu's video player and other features.

Opting for Adobe Is No Flash in the Pan

Hulu's guiding principle for selecting technology is whether or not it best serves the needs of its key customers, its viewers, its content partners, and its advertisers, according to Wei.

"Our player doesn't just simply stream video, it must also secure the content, handle reporting for our advertisers, render the video using a high-performance codec to ensure premium visual quality, communicate back with the server to determine how long to buffer and what bitrate to stream, and dozens of other things that aren't necessarily visible to the end user," Wei explained.

However, he did not close the door on HTML5.

"That's not to say these features won't be added to HTML5 in the future or be easier to implement," Wei wrote. "Technology is a fast-moving space, and we're constantly evaluating which tools will best allow us to fulfill our mission for as many of our customers as possible," he added.

"Hulu is staying with something that works," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. "Their goal is to provide a service, and not to push a particular technology. They can always switch when the standard is ready, and that may not be for years," he said.

"People use whatever technology is optimum for their needs, and everyone else is doing the same thing as Hulu," Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, pointed out. "They can't wait for standards."

HTML5's Weaknesses

For now, HTML5 lacks DRM and a lot of the other features Wei mentioned. It's also a standard still under development, and for some, its progress is too slow.

One reason for that is the W3C's standards process, which intentionally moves cautiously and deliberately because any decisions the body makes have such a widespread impact. Another reason: typical infighting among vendors. Both Apple and Microsoft are involved in the HTML5 standards process, for example, and in some regards their interests differ widely.

"The problem with standards like this is that the vendors backing the effort are often more interested in assuring their technology is provided an advantage, or a competitor's isn't given one, than in moving the standard forward," Enderle grumped. "This is often why technologies like Flash continue to do well and why sometimes companies get frustrated and exit the process or develop non-complying products."

Parts of HTML5 have already been implemented by various browser makers, but the standard's already fragmenting.

"Every vendor has its own subset of HTML5 that it's implementing," IDC's Hilwa told TechNewsWorld. "It's going to remain partially implemented for the next five years or so."

Open Versus Proprietary

While HTML5 is an open standard, there may also be a place for proprietary technologies such as Flash on the Web,.

"There will always be competitive technologies that are primarily sponsored by a single vendor such as Flash or Silverlight that have more optimization, more features, more capability, and more hardware optimization such as DRM," Hilwa pointed out. "That's always been the nature of technology."

Hulu probably also has business reasons for sticking with Flash.

"I'd summarize Hulu's argument as 'If HTML is open and free, so would be our content, and that's unacceptable to our content partners,'" Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld. "A closed Flash platform is much more attractive when you need to prevent copying and want to control distribution."

However, HTML5 is the future of video and the Web, Howe said.

Hulu's Other Announcements

Hulu has brought out a new version of its video player. It now has adaptive bitrate streaming so the company can shift video bitrates and resolution up and down to match the user's bandwidth.

Another feature is ad volume normalization, which will restrict the audio volume of advertisements to the same level as programs. Consumers have frequently complained that television ads seem to blare at a higher volume than normal programming. This is something viewers of traditional television systems -- broadcast, cable and satellite -- have also complained about. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in December, H.R. 1084, to address this issue.

Other new features include closed captioning display, seek preview, and a "heat map" that lets viewers home in on segments of a program that attracts their interest.

Hulu also introduced "Ad Tailor," a new ad personalization feature that will increase the relevance of ads for its viewers.

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