Amidst Confusion Over Web Video, the Porn Industry Emerges as Canary in the Coalmine

Last Updated Jun 30, 2010 5:30 PM EDT

A Google (GOOG) engineer is defending YouTube's use of Flash on the official YouTube API blog today, saying that HTML5 just isn't sufficient to replace Adobe's (ADBE) much-maligned video software. But Google's top brass has been promoting HTML5 -- which it helped develop -- vigorously for the last year as evidence of Google's commitment to "openness," railing against proprietary technologies. Why is Google saddling itself with even more commitment to Flash?

A lot has already been said about the video standards fight -- maybe too much -- since Steve Jobs' remonstration of Flash. (For those catching up, Flash is a Web software that underpins much of the video we watch online. And Jobs hates it.) It seemed Google had gone far enough when it paid lip service to Adobe last month.

But the fight over video standards isn't over, because it's that important. It has real implications for regular Web users, who may find themselves unable to view certain videos depending on which Web browser (or phone) they are using. The stakes are even higher for the companies and individuals making that video content, because their choice could exclude an entire swath of users from their audience. Several different video standards means a smaller audience -- and less money -- for everyone.

For a while, Google seemed to be on the right track. In April, I argued that Google and Netflix (NFLX) were perhaps best positioned in the video standards mess, at least compared to the confusion and inaction gripping most of the major TV networks. Now Google too seems confused.

YouTube may be reiterating its support for Flash for good reason. As the blog post argues, Flash is great for full-screen viewing, camera support, DRM, and buffering longer videos. Despite what Steve Jobs would have you believe, Flash is just fine -- for now. But in the long run, all this Flash-love may become an anchor requiring legacy support and draining valuable resources.

It's the evolution of the product that has many technologists concerned. Because of Flash's status as a de facto "standard," Adobe has had very little incentive to improve it over the last few years, and indeed, many of its major flaws have languished. A couple of weeks ago, I asked Alex Blum, CEO of KickApps, which makes social networking software that relies heavily on Flash, whether anyone would still be supporting Flash in five years. His response:

[That] will depend largely on Adobe's efforts to continue to move the platform forward. Today Flash plays an important role of providing a standard approach across multiple operating systems, browsers, etc. that is lost INITIALLY by moving to HTML5. Eventually tools like the ones we are working on to support HTML5 will become available and as powerful as the ones built on Flash but this will take some time.
If Flash is overtaken by HTML5 or a competing technology, Adobe may let it founder even more in favor of its other products. Already, it seems to be improving at too slow a pace for at least one of the Web's technological spearheads: online pornography. Digital Playground, a porn company that accounts for a massive 40% of porn DVDs sold in the U.S., has announced it will be moving all its Web videos to HTML5, presumably to tap the iPhone/iPad demographic. As with past format wars -- VHS vs. Betamax; Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD -- the importance of the porn vote can't be underestimated. As The Register notes:
The porn industry could again help consolidate a new technology, if others follow Digital Playground and jump in bed with HTML5. It has been calculated that 12 per cent of all web sites are porn, a quarter of all search-engine requests are for porn, and just over a third -- 35 per cent -- of all downloads are pornographic.
Granted, even the most powerful porn companies -- PornHub, the 54th most popular website in the world, has also jumped on the HTML5 bandwagon -- are not big enough to tip the scales away from such a massive standard as Flash, which displays 75% of Web video today. But they're a definite canary in the coal-mine. Porn is a commodity, and porn companies live in fear of disruption; since they have plenty of cash, they are quick to innovate for survival's sake. What's not good enough for porn in 2010 may be left in the dust by mainstream companies in 2011.

Google, meanwhile, has announced yet another video codec called VP8, which is open-source and has garnered support from Adobe and Mozilla, makers of Firefox. As my colleague Steven Shankland has argued at our sister site CNET, Google's long-run strategy might be to hand off video to VP8 once Flash becomes irreparably outdated. But such a two-headed approach to video seems complex and redundant -- very un-Google -- and may only make the confusion for developers, consumers and content producers even worse.

Related: