Making Web Video Work with Mobile Devices

The most popular way to stream video today is the same as 4 years ago: using a Flash player to play a video file with an FLV wrapper. Unfortunately, only desktop computers can play these files, leaving mobile devices with nothing to see.

Over the last two years we have been working hard to change this and bring video to mobile viewers. We found early on that people wanted to watch sports, podcasts, TV shows and even movies on the go. In 2008 there was really only one choice for mobile video – archival footage on YouTube for the iPhone. Live streaming was not supported and hosting it yourself was not worth the pain.

Thankfully, the landscape changed dramatically in 2009 and early 2010. We can now deliver mobile video to 100′s of millions of people in both archived and live streaming formats.

Apple, Android and Blackberry

Based on market share, there are three platforms you need to care about when providing mobile video. The iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android devices and some Blackberry phones.

All these platforms handle H.264 encoded video with AAC audio in an MP4 wrapper. This is a major bonus as the MP4 wrapper is great for both the desktop web and mobile as it allows you to start playing the video before it downloads the entire file. That’s the difference of seconds over minutes to start watching a video and also keeps them from clicking elsewhere.

The biggest challenge we have is what dimensions and bit rate we use for the video. Apple set the standard and the others are now following suit. The iPhone, iPad and Android all play nicely together, but some of the older Blackberry handsets need smaller video files.

Here are the specs to use:

H.264 video, up to 1.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Low-Complexity version of the H.264 Baseline Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .mp4 file formats.

If you have specific Blackberry phone coverage you need to meet, then we suggest you take a look at Blackberry's list of supported media types for their phones. Many of the older phones or smaller screens only support 320×240 resolution.

I would also suggest you keep the bit rates closer to 650Kbps. Many cellular carriers can’t handle larger files and it will take too long to start playing the file.

Note: We haven’t been able to test it yet, but the specs for Windows Phone 7 show similar support for H.264.

Hosting Video for Free

At this point you have a choice in how to handle delivery of the video. You can do it yourself, pay someone to host it for you, or use a free service. There are pros and cons to each.


These guys have been around the mobile space the longest. They know how to do it, and as long as you upload them an H.264 video file, they will convert it to the proper formats for both desktop and mobile.

There is one big caveat to YouTube though. You don’t have as much control as they are hosting it for free. Consequently, if you include copyrighted music or video from third parties, chances are their automated flagging system will pull your video down. Many news organizations have been caught out by this, even when they legally have the right to fair use.

YouTube works great at no cost, just be careful building mashups pulling in other video or music. The also have the best API for automating large numbers of video in the background.


Vimeo separates itself from YouTube in several ways. It has both free and paid options (faster conversion and larger files), has above average content from a great community, and does not allow commercial video. If you are a business, you can skip this one.

Back in January 2010, Vimeo announced HTML5 video support for desktops using H.264. This was a great first step that lead to their Universal Player announcement this past August. The Universal Player is an embeddable iFrame that works on iPad, iPhone and Android. Their support for Blackberry is suspect, but they are working on it.

If you want to use Vimeo for mobile, make sure you pay for the Plus option. It’s the only way to get it.


This is a product built for businesses. Viddler provides some of the best ways to customize, monetize and track the video playback experience. I would suggest watching their promotional video for an overview of what they provide.

In order to get mobile support, you’ll have to be a business member (starts at $100/mo) and you’ll have to specifically enable iPhone and iPad support. This works with Android as well and may work with newer Blackberry models.

The Community Aspect

All three of these hosted services provide discovery features for visitors browsing their site. If you are providing video for wide audiences then you’ll benefit greatly from the community. However, if you are targeting a niche the impact will be near zero.

Live Streaming to Mobile for Free

There are three main competitors for businesses in the live streaming space: UStream, Justin.TV and LiveStream. As of today, the only one that supports live streaming to mobile devices via a web page is LiveStream. Ustream and have applications that must be installed, but frankly, that just doesn’t work for business.

In the long term, Ustream actually looks very well suited. They are currently working on the technology to stream events using variable bitrates from one master feed. This will allow you to stream a game or press conference to just about everyone on their desktop, mobile device on cellular or wifi and still provide the best video they can. Their uptime and load capabilities are also the best around.

Personally, we’ve used LiveStream in the past, but switched away due to downtime issues. I still wouldn’t put them aside though. Their mobile streaming package is currently the best.

Hosting Video Yourself

If you are one of those companies who needs to have total control, then you’ll want to host it yourself. You have a lot of options here, but the most common for hosting archival videos are Amazon S3, Edgecast, Rackspace and Akamai.

You’ll need to do all of the file conversion yourself using tools like Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premier or Handbrake before you upload, or pay someone to do it for you. Most of the time your video production or web design partner can do this for you.

You’ll also need some very specific knowledge around Flash video, HTML5 video and JavaScript to make this all work. We’ve spent a significant amount of time investigating the different ways to deliver video to the desktop and mobile devices at the same time. It’s not easy, but it works great when done right.

Streaming Video Yourself

If you are wanting to stream events live, there aren’t many choices here and you will pay a hefty fee for it. Edgecast, Akamai, Ustream and LiveStream all provide white label products so it looks like you host it yourself. However, unless you are a major corporation with money to burn, you don’t want to go this route. It’s highly cost prohibitive.

Planning for the Future

For a variety of reasons, video is great way to set yourself apart. With 100′s of millions of devices in the market, mobile video has tipped and is on a downhill rush. You are making a huge mistake if you don’t have your website videos viewable on the go. Consumers are eager to see great content about your product, or watch your events live, but they want to do it on the go.

Don’t make the mistake and hide what you have to say from so many people. It’s minimal work to make that sale or gain a new fan – Be mobile ready and beat your competition today!