The Drive for Five: HTML5 Offers Challenges, Big Upside

BTR_Feature_Art_HTML_5_21_13 Cable technology today is more deeply tied to the larger world of telecommunications than in its early years. For that reason, advances in other sectors have a big impact on how the industry deals with its networks and, ultimately, its subscribers.

The fifth version of the hypertext markup language - HTML5 - is such an advancement. A goal of HTML5 is to eliminate external video players and plug-ins that have been necessary to render video on browsers on PCs and mobile devices.

These newly functional browsers offer great opportunities in at least a couple of areas to cable operations. But like all new technologies, obstacles and challenges remain.

In general, the advent of a widely used platform is the same as anything that reaches commodity status: The sheer number of people using the same basic technology means that there are more creators - developers, in this case - more innovation, and generally lower costs. Another advantage is that HTML5 video playback also is faster and therefore leads to a better consumer experience, said Marty Roberts, the senior vice president of sales and marking for thePlatform.

Beyond this, HTML5 dovetails nicely with the state of the cable industry. Operators can leverage the new markup language because it allows content written once to be used across Google's Android, Apple's iOS and other operating systems. This would make it easier for operators to roll out multiscreen services to the widest possible universe of devices.

In the cable industry, HTML5 will work in a close and complementary manner with the adaptive bitrate streaming platforms that currently bring IP content to second and third streams. HTML5 will cross paths with ABR streaming and the businesses operators are building around it in two ways: It translates the data that is sent to the devices - the ABR streams - and renders it correctly on the screens. HTML5 also is used to create the guides, directional cues, Web pages and other vital messaging and data surrounding the core programming.

Both uses are vital. The importance of rendering ABR streaming data is self explanatory. The second use - creation  of apps that can be used for a wide variety of content distribution - will grow more important as second and third screens spend less time miming the main screens and more as complementary carriers of social networking and other content related to what is playing on the main screen. This world of companion devices, in other words, will be the domain of HTML5.

There are challenges to the adoption of HTML5. Roberts said HTML5 browsers don't all work in a uniform manner, and a higher level of quality assurance is necessary. Perhaps a bigger issue is that there is no HTML5-specific digital rights management (DRM) technique. The plug-ins used in today's version of HTML have relationships with DRM providers. This is not true of HTML5, which eschews plugins. Since content owners won't allow programming to be used without DRM, cable operators must revert to the DRM associated with the specific ABR streaming system they are using until a native approach to HTML5 DRM is developed.

There is a short-term work around. Using proprietary DRM approaches gets the job done, experts say, but it neutralizes some of the efficiencies and related advantages that HTML5 brings to the table in the first place. The sense is that this is not an intractable problem and that it will be solved over time.

The best tools are those that have differentiated short- and long-term benefits. Experts say many of the apps with which cable operators hope to score big - such as home automation and security - will be written in HTML5. "Given the large pool of HTML5 developers, the potential for app-store services is enormous, but it depends in part on how the network is configured," said Jeremy Edmonds, ActiveVideo's Director of Technical Business Development.

The vision is that HTML5 will get a foothold in multiscreen and evolve to be a main tool for operators and the developers they hire, either directly or through software development firms they retain. " There are a multitude of services and potential services that cable operators can develop using HTML5," said Rajdeep Junnarkar, the vice president of mobile products for INADEV, a development company that works with the emerging markup language.  

Finally, HTML5 is part of the back and forth that gradually - indeed, almost imperceptibly - leads to more powerful systems. This may be happening in a roundabout way. Anton Monk, the co-founder and vice president of technology for chip maker Entropic, said chips are getting increasingly powerful. Streaming video to HTML5-based browsers, though, is so demanding that the task must be offloaded from the main processor. Once those more powerful chips don't have to worry about video, they  can be employed to perform other advanced - though somewhat more modest - services. The future indeed is bright, he said: "There are truly advanced multiscreen [apps] coming out," he said.

At this point, HTML5 will enable operators set-top boxes to catch up to the more futuristic displays of tablets and smartphones, said Conrad Clemson, the vice president of the North American Center of Excellence for Cisco’s (NASDAQ:CSCO) Service Provider Video business unit. He said that while HTML5 video is not quite ready, the future appears bright. He points to a reference design kit for STBs from Comcast as a way to use HTML5 to upgrade the main screen experience and enable developers to write once for any and all screens that subscribers use.

The bottom line is that HTML5 is a linchpin to the future. "We are aware of amazing innovation on screen presentations that are coming from all fronts,” Clemson said.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Reach him at

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