Hulu Could Still Launch On The iPad

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When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad last month, one notable potential partner absent from the stage was Hulu, now the second-largest video site on the Web. The launch event focussed more on the iPad as an eBook reader to rival the Kindle, but watching videos on it will be just as important. The TV shows on Hulu would be perfect on the iPad. There is just one hitch: the iPad doesn’t support Flash, and all of Hulu’s videos currently run inside a Flash player.

But that could change by the time the iPad launches in March. One rumor I’ve heard from an industry insider is that Hulu is working on an iPad-friendly version of its site that should be ready by the time the iPad hits the market. Hulu itself is still vague about its plans. When asked directly by Om Malik whether Hulu has any plans for the iPad, CEO Jason Kilar recently hemmed and hawed about how he is a big believer in mobile, but wouldn’t confirm or deny anything.

Putting Hulu on the iPad boils down to a business decision, not a technical one. Getting Hulu to work on the iPad would not take as much work as some might expect. The biggest challenge to getting a large video library to play on the iPad (or iPhone) is to convert the underlying video files to the H.264 standard. Fortunately for Hulu, its videos are already encoded in H.264 and have been since the summer of 2008. So it doesn’t have to go back and re-encode all of its videos. But on the front-end, it would have to create a non-Flash player (Flash plays videos encoded in H.264 as does the Quicktime player on the iPad and iPhone).

Getting Hulu’s videos to play on the iPad is not that big a deal. They could just do what YouTube does and pop open the Quicktime player when a viewer tries to click on a video in their browser. But making people switch applications every time they want to watch a video isn’t the best experience. Hulu could rectify that in two ways: build a custom iPad/iPhone app with its own player, or rewrite its site in Javascript for the iPad/iPhone browser.

Here’s where things get a little tricky. Hulu’s familiar look and feel is all built into its custom Flash player. It would have to try to reproduce that as much as it can using HTML5, and it might not look as good (for more on HTML5 Vs. Flash and the future of mobile apps, read this post). More importantly, all the ads that run on Hulu are designed for Flash, especially interactive ads like overlays. The ad code, business logic, and underlying analytics would all have to be rewritten for a Javascript player. Frankly, this is the biggest hurdle.

So porting Hulu to the iPad is not completely trivial, but Hulu has a large engineering group (including a group in China) more than capable of doing the work. The question is, with more than a billion streams a month and growing via the good ol’ Web and Flash, is it worth it to put engineering resources just for the iPad. At this point, the iPad needs Hulu more than Hulu needs the iPad.

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