Video Compression for the Web – Part 1: A Brief History

Part 1 will deal with the online video landscape. Where it was and where it’s come. Part 2 looks at the specifics of choosing compression settings and formats. Part 3 looks at the pros and cons of various video sharing resources. So, let us begin.

webplayerlogosLet me start right out of the gate and say this will not be a comprehensive treatise on all things related to video compression. After producing videos professionally for nearly eleven years, I know just enough to be “dangerous.” But I’m by no means an expert. (I’d say I’m a quasi-expert. An expert-lite. 🙂 What I will give you is enough information to make the rights choices for your business and clients with regards to compressing videos for the web.


The history of compressing video for the web goes back  almost twenty years. (In internet time, that’s like a few eons). There was a time when it was near impossible to watch videos online. I remember the “good ol’ days” when having a 56k internet connection was an UPGRADE. You had TWICE the download speed as those poor saps stuck with 28.8k modems. Ever try watching a video on a 56K modem? It was like watching mold grow. There are times when I would literally start a video downloading in the morning, the go to work or out to run some errands so that I could come back in a few hours to watch 5 minutes. I chuckle and chortle now thinking about those days. (And I long for the day when I’ll look back at 30Mbps cable speeds as laughable the same way we know look at 56k).

Eventually modems got faster and download speeds increased to a point where you could watch short films online in one sitting. If you worked at a company that had a T1 or T3 line, you were golden. You could sit at your desk and watch AtomFilms all day (not that I’d ever do that). Then we started seeing all kinds of different formats for the web: wmv, mov, RealPlayer, Flash, and others.

When I first started in the biz back in 2002, my go-to format was .WMV. Trust me, it was strictly for business reasons. I was a die-hard Mac guy (still am). But I knew a majority of my clients (brides at the time) were at an office working on a Windows machine. I wanted to make sure my clients could view the videos I uploaded. So despite that fact that .mov QuickTime compression tended to look better, if I wanted to maximize the number of people who could actually see my videos, I needed something Windows-friendly.

Then Flash hit the scene. No, not the superhero. The video format. Technically, Flash is so much more than just a video format. It’s used for websites and animation and many other uses. The beauty of Flash was that it was cross-platform. Mac. Windows. Linux. Whatever your operating system, chances were greater than 92% you could view a Flash video. Once Flash became a predominant format, I started creating my own .FLV files (note: this is pre YouTube and Vimeo days. So hang in there with me.)

Then on Valentine’s Day, 2005, a domain name was registered. A domain that would literally change the face of the Internet. That domain name was

Flash-forward to Today

The world of video for the web has dramatically changed since YouTube hit the scene. Other video sharing sites followed: Vimeo. blip. Viddler. Dailymotion. Veoh. And many more. Gone were the days where you had to fiddle with programs to create a Flash video. You could use just about any popular format, upload it, and it would be converted to a Flash video the whole world would see. Gone were the days of trying to figure out the code to link to a video you uploaded to your site. These sites generated the code for you. All you had to do was cut and paste. And better yet, since the video was hosted elsewhere, your limited website space was no longer choked. (There is some debate on whether it’s better to host videos yourself, use a service like YouTube or Vimeo, or use a service like Wistia. Each has its pluses and minuses. I’ll cover that in part 3).

Flash was the way to go. It was the answer to all our internet video dreams. Flash would be here forever.


You see, a few years ago there was this guy named Steve. Steve ran a company named after a piece of fruit of all things. Steve was a rather opinionated fellow. For whatever reason, Steve didn’t like Flash. Now, the reason that mattered was because Steve’s fruit-named company made “toys” that people loved to buy. And because Steve didn’t like Flash, the toys he made didn’t “play” well with Flash. In fact, they didn’t play Flash at all.

I and many other people felt that regardless of how popular Steve’s toys were, there was no way he was going to break the hegemony Flash had. But lo and behold. A lot of freaking people bought those toys. Enough people started buying them that web developers and video producers were forced to deal with issues surrounding millions of viewers unable to see their content on these toys. Slowly but surely, we are now seeing the decline of Flash as a predominant format for web or video on the internet. In fact, in the fall of 2011, Adobe announced it would cease developing Flash for mobile devices.

So what has taken its place? What was it that Steve believed to be the wave of the future…


I’m not even going to pretend to understand all the complexities that go into this 5th revision of hypertext markup language. Suffice it to say that a key component of it is the added simplicity of displaying videos online. It is a standard that does not require Flash. And more and more content producers are switching to creating HTML5-compliant videos and websites. (Here’s a great overview of HTML5 Video).

Look in the lower right-hand corner of your Vimeo video description, and you'll see this.
Look in the lower right-hand corner of your Vimeo video description, and you’ll see this.

So what does that mean for you? Well, it means that you can export a video in just about any format you like, upload it to most major video sharing sites, and the they will create a player that supports HTML5 (i.e. your videos can be seen on one of the aforementioned “toys”). This is important in large part to how import mobile devices have become to viewers on the go. High-profile Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Mark Meeker recently reported that 13% of all internet traffic is mobile-based (up from 4% a couple of years ago). The trend continues to rise. HTML5 is a standard that helps make the playback of web videos a good experience.

What Does the Future Hold?

“Always in motion is the future.” ~ Master Yoda

yodaWho knows what the future will hold for online video. It continues to evolve and move at the speed of, well, the internet. Which is fast. Real fast. Who knows. By the time you finish reading this, we may already be on to HTML6 which will most likely support some sort of 3D viewing experience. You just watch.

In the meantime, as video content producers, it’s our job to make sure the content we produce can be seen on as many devices as possible. As confounding and confusing as it all gets, it’s our responsibility to keep up with it just enough to make the best decisions for our clients and/or the audiences we serve. To that end, tomorrow I’ll address actually compressing and prepping videos for the web.

What’s your video hosting story? Share in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “Video Compression for the Web – Part 1: A Brief History

  1. OMG! You had me at atomfilms. We sure have come a long way. The you show Yoda and all I could think of was . I remember when it was taboo and unprofessional to embed a YouTube video.

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