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This post was written by Jaafer Haidar, vice president of mobile at cloud-based content platform Synacor.

Every once in a while, necessity brings strange bedfellows together towards a common goal. Apollo Creed and Rocky joined forces to take on Clubber Lang in Rocky III, Batman and Catwoman teamed up against Bane in The Dark Knight Rises … and lately my wife and sister are working together to prevent me from trying skydiving. Either way, unexpected couplings must occur to ensure success where one party couldn’t go it alone. When you take a look at the future of mobile, HTML5 and Digital Rights Management (DRM) are an unstoppable team, but they need each other in order to win the code wars.

Native Apps Mean Everyone Has To Sacrifice

Let’s first admit something: We don’t love apps — we love what apps give us. The content we want, when we want it, in the palm of our hand. It’s all about the delivery and experience; we could care less whether it’s in the form of an installed app or a web app as long as it is always there at our fingertips. That said, there is an impact for all when a native app is created.

  • For Publishers: Native apps mean developing an app for every platform or sacrificing part of the audience you’re trying to reach. Developing and supporting all these apps is very expensive.
  • For Consumers (all of us): (a) Hope there’s an app for your mobile platform (b) If you have devices operating on different platforms, you need to purchase the app for each platform (c) Hope the app is specifically designed for your phone and tablet.

Content Should Live Free but that Doesn’t Mean it is Free.

There are HTML5 apps and games that rival and even outperform native applications. The biggest brands such as Google, YouTube, LinkedIn and OpenTable (among others) are championing HTML5 — and delivering the goods. The only thing holding back HTML5 from killing native apps is DRM.

Let’s be honest, production studios are in business to make money from the content they produce. Right now, native apps provide the protections studios require, but the ironic thing is that every video delivered through native apps is not Flash-based. Publishers have already done the heavy lifting for HTML5 delivery. They want to deliver videos in a mobile app that works across all devices — phone, tablet, laptop, and connected TVs. They want to build once, deliver everywhere. Publishers will then be able to get out of the dev shop business, and premium content will flourish online. HTML5 DRM enables this to happen — opening the floodgates.

HTML5’s Missing Key

Before the tech-must-be-free purists get excited, let’s discuss the current landscape. HTML5 is the promise of the web being a platform where content can live freely; a world where the device doesn’t matter, whether it’s your iPhone, iPad, Android device, laptop, or connected TV – all you need is the Web and you can get your stuff anytime anywhere. I agree 100% with this sentiment (in fact, I co-founded a company based on these exact principles of freedom). It’s a beautiful promise, but you know what’s missing from its current form? Video.

Video is one of the most popular thing to do online after checking email, conducting a search, or using Facebook. As tablets and phones are rapidly becoming the way most people use the web, few sites outside of YouTube have worked some back-end magic to ensure you can watch what you want when you want it. Ever visit your favorite site on an iPad only to see a black box where you could swear there should be a video? It sucks.

There are three things to consider with mobile web video:

  • Free or not, most video is in Flash format: That’s how it’s been forever, and there’s a whole ecosystem of rights management, advertising, social, and more tools at play.
  • The Chicken and the Egg: Publishers need a full ecosystem of tools to make money. At the same time, we’ve seen limited evolution of a non-Flash web video ecosystem because toolmakers need publisher demand before they invest in creating the tools. HTML5 DRM is the catalyst for the ecosystem’s development.
  • Native Apps fill the Void: Nobody supports Flash on mobile. Not Apple or Microsoft or Android … and soon not even Adobe. Flash on mobile is a dying technology. If you want to watch videos from your favorite places like Hulu, HBO, or even TMZ, then don’t go into the web browser, visit the app store and download the native app.

And therein lies the rub: if you want to watch videos on your mobile, download the app. The reason? Within native apps, the video content can be protected. Of course, if you get the app, you’re tied to your device (iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.). This is where DRM comes in handy for the ecosystem.

HTML5 Needs DRM to Win

Yes, there are some who believe DRM in any form goes against the very idea of HTML5. This ideal forces them to make a decision: Either believe that a video-less mobile web world can win or understand that consumers want the good stuff and to get it, it needs to be protected.

Even the large “Internet companies” recognize this. A previously proposed joint HTML5 DRM proposal from Google, Microsoft, and Netflix was a step in the right direction. Without a doubt, the industry needs a standard way to protect and deliver video over the web.

So lace up and get in the ring, my freedom loving friends. HTML5 and DRM are coming together for the better of the web – like Rocky and Apollo – it’s inevitable and only natural. DRM will fulfill the very promise of HTML5 — an open world where we’re free from device lock-in, and the web is the platform that rightfully wins.

Jaafer Haidar is head of Synacor’s mobile and multi-screen strategy. He is an expert and visionary in the power that HTML5 provides to consumer electronics OEMs and service providers in creating the best possible consumer experience across devices.

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