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Mozilla Reignites HTML5 Video Debate

01.25.2010
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Vimeo and Google's YouTube delivered their HTML5 video options last week, marking a major step in the wider adoption of standard video.  However, Mozilla developers were not very enthusiastic about the announcements because Firefox is not able to take advantage of this feature.  That's because browsers like Firefox and Opera only support Ogg Theora encoding, while YouTube and Vimeo use patent encumbered H.264 encoding in their HTML5 video.  Today, Mozilla bloggers have been criticizing the narrow options for YouTube and Vimeo's HTML5 players, reigniting the debate over web video standards.

Although the bloggers think that this is "an important step in making video a first-class citizen of the modern web," they are not happy with YouTube and Vimeo for using a patented encoding format.  Firefox pushed for the Ogg codec to become the sole HTML5 standard, but Google and Apple wanted to use the more sophisticated H.246 format since they could afford the licensing.  After heated debates, the WHATWG HTML5 working group decided to allow support for both codecs in <video> elements.   However, the HTML5 players at Vimeo and YouTube show that the working group's compromise still hasn't provided a standard that works for everyone. 

Firefox only supports Ogg Theora for HTML5 video elements even if the H.264 codec is installed on the OS.  Therefore, Firefox cannot play HTML5 video on either of those sites until the videos are encoded using Ogg.  Unlike Vimeo and YouTube, Daily Motion has an HTML5 player that uses Ogg.  Their HTML5 option debuted last summer.  Larger companies like Google and Apple willing to pay for the technically superior H.264, unlike Mozilla with their free, open source model.  Ogg Theora lacks the hardware acceleration available for H.264, which is another reason why smartphone and netbook vendors don't want to use it.  For YouTube to support Firefox in its HTML5 player, Google would have to re-encode a massive amount of videos on their site, and even then, they say that the less efficient Ogg codec would consume the world's internet bandwidth.  Firefox could solve their compatibility problem with H.264 by supporting operating system installed codecs, however, this still doesn't address the issue of H.246 licensing for web developers.

Christopher Blizzard, an open source Evangelist at Mozilla, fears that H.264 could have hidden patent and licensing costs that will emerge later, much like GIF and MP3.  Those two specs were thought to be royalty-free, and by the time they became ubiquitous on the web, the companies that owned the patents decided to enforce fees.  However, Google and Apple have made similar arguments against Ogg.  They believe that Ogg Theora could be vulnerable to a submarine patent since few people have claimed that it is absolutely patent-free.

Still, the Mozilla bloggers and many others argue that a patented codec for web standard video hinders the ability of developers to build websites without having to ask for permission to use video technologies.  Patents can be selectively enforced, therefore MPEG-LA, the company that owns H.264, can demand licensing fees to use the codec.  Distributing H.264 over the internet or broadcasting it requires the consent of the MPEG-LA.  Developers also might be worried that the current fee exemption for free-to-the-viewer internet delivery is only in effect until the end of 2010.

Some people don't see the point of this reignited debate.  Many point to the fact that the internet does just fine without a standard image format.  "This whole imagined war over the official video codec of HTML 5 simply a non-issue," said AppleInsider.  "What is an issue is HTML 5 adoption. In addition to promoting interoperable video, HTML 5 also enables rich application support including client side databases for fat client sophistication and offline support."  Blogger Samuel Folkes agrees that the diversity of technologies shouldn't be limited in web standards:  "As developers its time we put our feet down and put an end to this nonsense. Corporations don’t run the web. We do. Collectively as a group we the web designers/developers do. At the end of the day browsers need to display the markup that *WE* write or parse the scripts *WE* write. *WE* run this."