How to use HTML5 <video> tags everywhere and have them Just Work™

Chrome's HTML5 video player interface
Chrome's HTML5 video player interface (just a screenshot, it doesn't actually work)

I’ve been coding raw html since 1994 (when I learned just enough to create a home page for Prince of Destruction — check out the all the <BR>s). I can remember all kinds of random CSS properties and half the jQuery API, but when I need to embed video in a web page I still need to google a bunch of references to get anything that works halfway decently.

Until Google pulled the rug out from under H264 there was some hope that embedding video inside a web page might soon become as simple as embedding images has been since the days of NCSA Mosaic. It’s hard to imagine a non-trivial piece of code simpler than a basic image tag. (If you have any doubts as to whether Google really wants the video tag to succeed, take a look up at how horrible the video player UI in Chrome still is as of version 5. I might add that it can hardly play video without skipping and flickering.)

Whether or not Chrome (and Android) support H264, we’re going to be stuck with a ton of legacy users (Firefox, IE6/7) for a long time, and the only viable solution if we want to encode video in as few formats as possible is Flash.

Well, Flash supports H264 and Webkit supports H264, so what I want is to:

  • encode my video once, in some flavor of H264 that “just works” — ideally I want to be able to open a movie in QuickTime, Save As… and I’m done.
  • embed my video using the simplest, easiest-to-remember html possible, i.e. &lt;video src="foo.m4v" width="800" height="450" controls="true"&gt;
  • and have my video play back everywhere

So, here’s my solution. Use HTML5 video tags, and use a tiny bit of JavaScript to automagically convert the video tag into a Flash embed where necessary using the information already in the web page (which can be found in the video tag’s attributes).

I’ve built a simple prototype here. It uses video and h264 detection code from Dive into HTML5 (which means that for now Chrome plays back the video natively) and jQuery for cross-browser DOM manipulation, but hand-coding the relevant bits wouldn’t be that difficult if I wanted to make the code self-contained.

In essence, all I need is: $( function(){ $('video').replaceWith( flash_embed_crap ) } );

Most of the code is simply regurgitating boilerplate html for Flash embedding. (Incidentally, the code will have issues in IE7 thanks to the “Eolas bug”, but if I were to put the script in an external JavaScript file that issue would disappear. Any weird IE behavior should be gone.)

The Flash video player I’m using is very simple — it pretty much uses Flash’s built-in video components and has some simple glue code allowing the embedding web page to talk to it once it’s embedded (not that I’m taking advantage of this here).

It works.

P.S. As per the comments in my source code, I plan to extend this code to provide a number of useful convenience functions and support <audio> tags the same way, and finally to provide a simple but robust open source Flash media player. Aside from anything else, this will help me implement cross-platform media playback in Acumen.

P.P.S. My initial attempts to do for <audio> tags what I’ve just done for <video> tags have not met with much success.

My big problem is that Flash’s FLVPlayer component doesn’t seem to want to play MP3s for me. I’m not sure what’s going on there; it may be some odd combination of Flash security settings hosing locally hosted playback and my ISP’s server configuration hosing remote playback, or FLVPlayer may just be fragile. I’d like the audio and video player UIs to be as identical as possible and for the player to be as simple as possible — having two completely different code paths for audio and video seems like hard work (mostly from a UI point of view).

So the upshot is I can’t change this article’s title to include <audio> tags (yet). Sigh.