In the past I have written a quite a bit about the on-going video codec squabble. Go through them, if you want to catch up with the controversy surrounding the Ogg Theora vs H264 tussle.
In brief, HTML5 will introduce a new <video> tag, which will allow browsers to offer native video playback. In simple terms, this means that you will be able to view online videos without bothering about third party plugins. This is somewhat similar to how browsers are able to render jpg and png images out of the box. The trouble is that the browser makers have failed to reach any consensus on the video codec to use.
The two main contenders are H.264 and Ogg Theora. H.264 is undoubtedly the technically superior codec. Not only does it support hardware encoding (which is an important consideration for mobile device), but it also delivers better quality at lower bitrates. Unfortunately, H.264 is a proprietary codec. Patents related to H.264 are owned by MPEG LA, which may extract royalty fees from content providers and distributors if they ever wish to.
In a recent announcement, MPEG LA agreed to make H.264 royalty free for web use until 2015. This may appear to be great news. However, it has its own pitfalls. If we were to adopt H.264 at this stage, then by 2015 it would presumably become universal. If MPEG LA then decided to charge royalty fees, what would we do? It would have already been too late to switch to another alternative. Do we really want to remain at the mercy of a commercial firm?
The situation is less bleak for Windows users. Windows 7 ships with an H264 decoder. So, if browser vendors ever felt the need, they can simply piggy back on the built-in encoder, for which users have already paid during their OS purchase. I am not sure, but I believe the situation is similar with Apple’s OSX. However, what about Linux users?
At the moment, Firefox and Opera supports Ogg Theora, Safari supports H264 and Chrome supports both. Now, Microsoft has put its weight behind H.264. Here are extracts from Microsoft’s statement:
The future of the web is HTML5. Microsoft is deeply engaged in the HTML5 process with the W3C. HTML5 will be very important in advancing rich, interactive web applications and site design. The HTML5 specification describes video support without specifying a particular video format. We think H.264 is an excellent format. In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video only.
Other codecs often come up in these discussions. The distinction between the availability of source code and the ownership of the intellectual property in that available source code is critical. Today, intellectual property rights for H.264 are broadly available through a well-defined program managed by MPEG LA. The rights to other codecs are often less clear, as has been described in the press. Of course, developers can rely on the H.264 codec and hardware acceleration support of the underlying operating system, like Windows 7, without paying any additional royalty.
This is obviously a big setback for the advocates of Open Web. Even if we ignore the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that Microsoft is trying to propagate, one can’t ignore Internet Explorer’s market share. Microsoft has enough influence over the browser market to almost single handedly seal Ogg Theora’s fate. Worse still, Apple and others may be gearing up to go after Ogg Theora with patent infringement charges.
Fortunately, there is still some hope. Some of you may already be aware that Google recently acquired On2 and has pledged to open source their new VP8 codec. Incidentally, Ogg Theora is based on VP3, which was earlier open sourced by On2. According to BusinessofVideo.com, Google is currently working behind the scenes to gather support for the new video codec. It is expected to announce the initial list of vendors and content providers who will support VP8 on May 19th. Here’s an extract from BusinessofVideo:
Once the On2 deal was finalized, Google has been hard at work meeting with many different vendors in the online video ecosystem including video platform providers, encoding companies, hardware vendors and others to convince them to support VP8 in their product lines. So far, they have been successful in their efforts and have quite a few vendors who have agreed to support VP8 have been busy over the past few months building that support into their platforms.
For the sake of Open Web let’s hope that Google succeeds in its endeavor to push VP8 as an open standard.