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What’s the difference between online video file formats?

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If you’ve shot, uploaded or even watched a video online in the last year, you’ve probably seen some of these file types: .MOV, .AVI, .MP4 or .FLV. You might find yourself asking, “Why are there so many?” and “What’s the difference?”

I’ve put together a little starter course on the differences between the most popular formats for online video.

Video Formats vs. Codecs

A file such as .MOV or .WMV, is a container file. If you hear someone say ‘format’ or ‘wrapper’, they are actually talking about the ‘container format’. Container Files specify how the data inside them are organized, but they don’t have any say in how that data is shown to you. This is the job of the codec. Codecs describe how video data is to be played back to you in the most efficient way.

The confusion between container formats and codecs is very common as the specific codec is not usually prominently advertised when looking at media files, and several of them share the same name. If you have two .MOV files on your computer and one doesn’t work right, it’s probably due to a difference in codecs. Theoretically, you can use any codec inside any container format. However, codecs are usually exclusive to a certain format – adding to the confusion. Most restrictions on the interchangeability between the various container formats and codecs are of legal nature – not technical incompatibilities.

Common Video Container Formats:

  • QuickTime (.MOV): The first largely successful multimedia format, created by Apple but supported within Windows as well. Released in 1991. Just for a frame of reference, here is something else that was released in 1991. QuickTime is still very popular despite the program being non-native to Windows.
  • Audio Video Interleave (.AVI): Microsoft’s first official response to QuickTime, released one year later with Windows 3.1. Microsoft eventually replaced AVI with WMV for multiple reasons, perhaps the biggest being the internet pirate community’s affinity for the AVI container.
  • Windows Media (.WMV, .WMA, .ASF, .ASX): Microsoft’s second container. Windows Media is extremely common due to Microsoft’s market share, and the fact that it comes pre-loaded on all Windows machines.
  • MPEG-4 (.MP4): The whole MPEG series was created by the ISO (The International Organization for Standardization) in an attempt to create an industry standard video format and to somewhat unify the various types. A noble effort, indeed. MP4 is in fact a fusion of QuickTime and the older MPEG standards. Apple has separated QuickTime from the .MOV format and made .MP4 the default format for the more recent QuickTime releases.
  • Flash Video (.FLV, .SWF): Created by Macromedia (and subsequently bought by Adobe), this container format is used by the Adobe Flash plug-in. You’ve probably seen the update prompts for this on your laptop more times than you can remember, as it’s still the most common format. This format gained massive popularity but is at the center of some controversy – Flash Video is banned from iOS devices like iPads and iPhones. This conscious decision by Apple was made famous when Steve Jobs declared Flash as ‘buggy’ among other things in a 2010 townhall.  Many websites are now moving towards HTML5 Video, which does not require a plug-in.
  • WebM (.webm):  This format was set to become the standard for HTML5 video, but there is much debate between advocates of WebM (most predominantly, Google) and fans of the H.264 codec (which is typically incorporated with the container formats .MP4, .MOV and .FLV). HTML5 video will become a true standard once this debate is settled.

If you’re creating video in your business, it’s important that your video solution can deal with this wide array of formats and serve up the correct file type to the appropriate device at the appropriate time. Find out how an enterprise video platform makes all of that easy.

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