BBC questions HTML5

The BBC joined the HTML5 discussions recently when Erik Huggers' posted on the BBC Internet Blog: HTML5, open standards, and the BBC. People have been asking the BBC throw its weight behind HTML5, and its use of Flash seems to show reticence, is that justified? Huggers opening and main thrust are:

Recent commentary on this blog has suggested that our use of Flash on BBC iPlayer and across BBC Online in general, betrays our commitment to open standards. [snip] As things stand I have concerns about HTML5's ability to deliver on the vision of a single open browser standard which goes beyond the whole debate around video playback.

Thankfully Huggers knows what HTML5 covers, and doesn't fall into the marketing use of HTML5 and include everything and the kitchen sink. However, finishing with a call for the W3C & HTML working group to continue fervently on the path you began seems odd. The process started outside of the W3C because they were not considering an update to HTML. It was the browser implementers who started the HTML5 process outside of official channels as a way to continue developing HTML. Huggers (and by extension the BBC) seems worried that the browsers are implementing things before the specification, but Robert O'Callahan (a developer for Mozilla) summed up the delicate balance well:

Implementations and specifications have to do a delicate dance together. You don't want implementations to happen before the specification is finished, because people start depending on the details of implementations and that constrains the specification. However, you also don't want the specification to be finished before there are implementations and author experience with those implementations, because you need the feedback.

As long as the standardisation process is moving, I don't see a problem with people trying new things out. There is currently a lot of friction around the specification process, but how much of that is due to the people involved, the interests of different organisations, or the sheer size and visibility of the process is anyone's guess.

Edge cases

The main questions for the BBC's iPlayer has to be: is the HTML5 video element ready to replace Flash? I can't disagree with Eric Huggers on this, the answer has to be: not yet. Someone who knows a great deal about this area is Jeroen Wijering (creator of JW Player) who notes that The video tag is still in its infancy and misses certain core functionalities. In future HTML5 video should mean browser-native video; bringing the advantages of performance, better interoperability and hopefully better accessibility options. However, having invested a great deal of time and effort (not to mention public money) into creating the iPlayer platform, it is incredibly premature to be even thinking about switching to HTML5 video. iPlayer works across the vast majority of platforms right now, and does so with a lot of edge cases in mind that HTML5 hasn't dealt with yet. If the BBC started using it now, they would have to deal with:

  • Lack of a common codec.
  • Lack of a common method of streaming.
  • Lack of full-screen playback.
  • Creating a way of applying accessibility features (captioning, audio describe etc).

Whilst I don't think that HTML5 is starting to sail off-course, that's because its being dragged (kicking and screaming) onto course. It is now getting to the time that difficult questions have to be answered (e.g. codecs), and that's proving difficult. It does not means that the process won't deliver a single open browser standard. What it might mean is that the browser standard is not enough. For example, some people involved have a strong focus on "paving the cow paths", which seems to have become: only deal with common scenarios. Some aspects (notably accessibility) are not "common" scenarios, but they are requirements for public organisations such as the BBC. Unless HTML5 can provide a complete (or at least sufficient) solution, it is going to be difficult for large organisations to adopt it. Another example was complex tables, where some accessibility attributes were going to be dropped. Whilst tables with more than one layer of heading are not common, and marking them up correctly (in HTML4/XHTML) was even less common, they are needed for assistive technology to make sense of them. Without that ability available in the language, organisations with a requirement to produce accessible content and complex tables (e.g. an annual report) would have to resort to another format. Perhaps it is the voice of organisations like the BBC that is missing from the HTML5 process?