HTML5, open standards, and the BBC
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. Is this a reasonable assumption? I do not think so.
Open standards have always been part of the BBC's DNA. They are fundamental to driving market innovation and will always be important to the BBC's mission to introduce the benefits of new technology to society. Open standards have the ability to transform our lives for the better.
Our use of Flash is not a case of BBC favouritism, rather it currently happens to be the most efficient way to deliver a high quality experience to the broadest possible audience. Let's also not forget that we already support a very wide range of other formats and codecs to deliver BBC iPlayer and other services to variety of devices.
The fact is that there's still a lot of work to be done on HTML5 before we can integrate it fully into our products. 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.
Driving open standards is in our DNA
The BBC has a long history of working with standards bodies; both contributing to development and adopting the standards across systems that support our work. It is a tradition we continue to be very proud of and is even reflected in the BBC's Charter that charges our R&D department to promote open standards in its work. Most recently we helped to ratify a new standard for digital terrestrial broadcasting across Europe (DVB-T2).
HTML5 can deliver so much more than a new way of delivering video playback in a browser. Its aims are rooted in the philosophies of Netscape (the browser as the operating system) and even Larry Ellison's (Network Computer concepts) - you take complexity out of the client and deliver it from the cloud. This speaks to a far greater cause than the delivery of video content. The potential democratising power of cloud computing (to make technology and services easily accessible to anyone on the planet) is a noble cause that we support.
HTML5 is starting to sail off-course
Not too long ago some browser vendors were showcasing proprietary HTML5 implementations; which in my view threaten to undermine the fundamental promise. Recent activity in the HTML5 Working Group and the apparent split between W3C and WhatWG suggests HTML5 might not be on the path we expect, or deliver what I believe our industry requires. Despite grand overtures from Microsoft toward HTML5 support, their new browser is yet to ship and so the jury is out. The tension between individual motivation and collective consensus has brought an end to many noble causes in the past, and here, the pace of progress appears to be slowing on bringing HTML5 to a ratified state. History suggests that multiple competing proprietary standards lead to a winner-takes-all scenario, with one proprietary standard at the top of the stack, which is not where most of us want to be...
Let's keep HTML5 on track
So my request to the W3C, HTML5 Working Group, and major browser vendors, is to continue fervently on the path you began. Understand you are representing the future of the web, as well as businesses like ours with your efforts. HTML5 is more important than any one motivation. Speed is of the essence. Professional integrity is of the essence. We are counting on you to bring one HTML5 to the web and the W3C to help make this happen.Erik Huggers is Director of BBC Future Media & Technology.