YouTube Stumbles Into the Era of HTML5

YouTube (s GOOG) announced the launch of an HTML5 video test on its blog last evening, but had some trouble delivering on its promise. The test only went live hours after the blog post, leaving many users wondering what all the fuzz was about.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the current test is limited to subset of YouTube’s videos as well as new versions of Safari and Chrome. Firefox users won’t be able to play any videos with the new, Flash-free HTML5 video player because their browser doesn’t support Google’s video format of choice, H.264. The decision to go with a proprietary rather than an open video codec immediately enraged the very open source user base that has been advocating for YouTube to drop Adobe (s ADBE) Flash.

Chrome and Safari as well as IE users that have installed Google’s ChromeFrame can go to YouTube’s TestTube page and opt into the HTML5 test, after which they’ll be able to watch many videos on the site completely without Flash. Videos with ads are still playing as Flash streams by default, and some other videos also don’t seem to be available as part of the test yet. I browsed the PBS Newshour archive and found the results to be inconsistent. Some clips played in Flash while others were available in HTML5.

Playback in HTML5 generally worked smoothly, but a few features are still amiss: Annotations and subtitles aren’t available, and videos can’t be played back in full-screen mode. Also missing is an option to switch between various video resolutions. However, a quick glance at the page source code revealed that this is apparently in the works, with the player’s JavaScript code in the case of one Newshour clip referencing the three video formats “medium” “hd720” and “hd1080.” The same video was available in four different resolutions (360p, 480p, 720p and 1080p) when watched with Flash.

Also interesting: The HTML5 player itself is referenced as “new yt.player.VideoPlayer.” One could speculate that this could be a sign for YouTube’s determination to roll out wider support for HTML5 and in fact one day treat HTML5 as the new standard to play videos. YouTube’s announcement wasn’t quite as committed, but certainly optimistic about the format’s future, closing with the words: “We are very excited about HTML5 as an open standard and want to be part of moving HTML5 forward on the web.”