Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the TidBITS Content Network for Apple consultants.

Hulu Working on iPhone App?

Hulu is the poster child for what's missing in the iPhone OS's Mobile Safari. Hulu is a streaming video service owned by major TV networks that lets you watch new and old TV shows and movies, with a mandatory requirement to view ads. It requires Adobe Flash.

Since the iPad was announced - see "The iPad Arrives," 27 January 2010 - one of the biggest debates about the device's future market share and efficacy is its lack of Flash support. John Gruber explained before the iPad launch the background of why Apple won't support Flash.

Flash can be used for many purposes, and Flash is used for all kinds of interactive games, multimedia content, and esoteric purposes - as well as horrible restaurant sites - all over the world.

But the single biggest use of Flash embedded in Web pages is to play video, most of which is already encoded in H.264, part of the MPEG4 set of standards, which Apple uses for nearly all its audio and video purposes.

With YouTube, for instance, Flash acts just as a wrapper for H.264 video. YouTube has a pilot project that allows H.264 video to play using the in-progress HTML5 rendering standard. YouTube users view over 12 billion videos each month, or about 40 percent of all online video watching in the United States. (HTML5 doesn't yet and will likely never specify a particular video format; H.264 patent, fee, and licensing issues prevent its use in projects like Firefox and Chrome that release all their source code.)

But Hulu is an edge case: the site needs a wrapper, even though it's "just" playing video. Where YouTube can use JavaScript to overlay ads on top of a standard video player on whatever browser video is playing, Hulu relies on commercial revenue to operate. Its custom Flash player doesn't let you skip commercials; a standard video player would let you skim back and forth unless a TV show or other video were broken into multiple pieces that loaded only in sequence. That would be annoying and would undoubtedly reduce usage.

It should come as no surprise that Hulu is considering developing an iPad-specific app - TechCrunch reports a "rumor... from an industry insider," which is hardly definitive, but the idea is logical. Hulu should make itself available on every major platform.

Hulu feeds out just 3 percent of U.S. online video, over a billion videos in December 2009, but it's the largest single site for legal licensed streaming TV viewing. The other network sites, like Fox, Viacom, and Turner Network each have just about one-third Hulu's traffic.

I can't imagine Hulu taking sides in a technology war, when Flash is a delivery mechanism, not a religious commitment. The recent change in AT&T's rules for applications that work over its 3G network provide more impetus for Hulu. AT&T says it's now fine for apps to stream video over 3G, so long as they conform to new rules. Sling Media was the first firm approved to use the new guidelines; Hulu might be among the next batch.

Given that the average Hulu user watches about 23 videos per month, according to comScore, an iPhone OS app could dramatically expand Hulu's reach. I wonder if Hulu would restrict an app to the iPad - perhaps due to processing power limits - when there are tens of millions of U.S. iPhone and iPod touch users also eager to join in.


Backblaze is unlimited, unthrottled backup for Macs at $5/month.
Web access to files means your data is always available. Restore
by Mail allows you to recover files via a hard drive or USB.
Start your 15-day trial today! <>

Comments about Hulu Working on iPhone App?
(Comments are closed.)

Hulu definitely wants to be on the iPhone and any and every device that it can. I believe the problem is with the content providers. Hulu has, to my knowledge, at least twice purposely blocked devices from working with it's site. Both Boxee and Playstation have been blocked by Hulu. Hulu said that it was done at the request of it's partners. The content providers seem to be afraid of Hulu running on anything other than a computer in a browser. Most likely this is because they are wary of Hulu becoming truly competitive with cable. It's absolutely maddening.
David Weintraub  2010-02-11 13:24
Hulu's videos are already H.264 encoded, so that's no real problem. There's also no reason why HTML5 and AJAX will prevent Hulu from making a player that prevents users from skipping ads.

Hulu's problem is that the ads are clickable Flash programs and not just streaming videos. Advertisers used these ads in other places too, and might not like the idea that they must produce special ads just for Hulu.

I suspect that the cable owners of NBC and other Hulu content will be a bit happier once Hulu Premium comes along. Hulu Premium will be a paid for service, but I suspect that cable customers can get the content for free as part of their standard cable package. That'll give the cable companies an edge over AT&T's U-verse and Verizion's FIOS service.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-02-11 13:51
That's a good point. Although it's possible Hulu will take the path of least resistance and use Adobe's Flash conversion system to allow use of those third-party Flash ads inside an iPhone app.
Graham Samuel  2010-02-16 05:20
Spare a thought for those iPhone and iPod Touch people outside the US. Right now we can't receive such useful content as BBC Radio or videos on news web sites because they all use Flash. Will Hulu come to Europe, and will we be beset by ads (charmingly absent on BBC)?

Also I don't entirely buy the argument about why Apple won't have Flash. After all, the Mac has Microsoft Office, even though it's proprietary and deeply annoying, but it has nevertheless become an industry standard in the business world, so Apple has to have it - maybe third party alternatives will chip away at this, but they were a long time coming. Similarly, Flash is a de facto standard and people who buy the hardware will want it, or a third party plugin that does the same job. I suspect that there's a covert fight going on between Apple and Adobe over this.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-02-21 14:18
But Office isn't a system-level resource that Apple would have to bundle into the OS. The closest you can get there is Apple's support for things like PDF and RTF.
michelle  2010-03-07 12:23
Hulu without flash on the iphone is perfectly possible.
you can have it on the wii , xbox or ps3 and those don't support flash.

There are two media servers that will work with the iphone

Tversity has iphone support, but has bad hulu support, you have to wait until the whole file completely converts.

Ah, playon is great but there isn't an iphone version yet.

But thats were the app we are developing codes in, it works with playin and since playon has hulu and hulu queues, we've demonstrated the ability to play playon content.

We are trying to complete our app and testing as quickly as possible.