What will happen to open video on the web?

With more and more people getting faster Internet connections, and video being one of the ultimate online multimedia experience (so far), it was due to get native video elements in web browsers. However, open video is threatened by codecs and patents, and I thought I’d discuss the situation and possible outcomes here.


These are the web browsers that support the video element:

  • Firefox 3-5+
  • Safari 4+
  • Google Chrome 3+
  • Opera 10.5+
  • Internet Explorer 9 developer preview

Looks like a solid list, right? The situation as it reads, though, is that that various web browsers support different video codecs, effectively resulting in content providers needing to encode video with multiple codecs to make it available for all.

Video codecs

In the currently existing web browser implementations of the video element, there are two main codecs supported:

  • H.264 (patent-controlled)
  • Ogg Theora (open)

Web browser supporting H.264

  • Safari
  • Google Chrome
  • Internet Explorer 9 developer preview

Web browsers supporting Ogg Theora

  • Firefox
  • Google Chrome
  • Opera

They will never agree

I have previously described the issues in greater depth in The video element in HTML5 – great possibilities, but also codec and licensing problems, but suffice to say, Firefox and Opera will never support H.264 and Safari will most likely never support Ogg/Theora. The only player supporting both formats are Google Chrome, at least giving content creators a choice.

The problem of patents

Just with web standards, HTML elements and everything else on the web, I think it’s vital to have an open patent-free format for the sake of the future and openness. Allegedly, H.264 will be royalty-free till 2015, but my reaction to that is: so what?

By 2015 is probably when the web browsers supporting the video element hold an sufficiently large market share to be a viable option for native video without fallbacks. So, just when the market is finally established, the royalties will kick in. So, just because it’s free till 2015, it sounds to me like taking out the victory in advance and start using it.

Also, as someone pointed out to me, looking at the news section of MPEG LA (who owns the patent for H.264), it seems all they’re doing is suing; the keyword density for the word “sued” is quite high… Doesn’t seem that comforting to work with, if you ask me at least, and definitely not in spirit with, nor a good match for, the future of the web.

So, what are the options?

I sincerely believe every major video player and web browser vendor need to look into this, and how we can ensure video on the web is truly open. Everyone that publishes anything on the web has to have the possibility to upload a video that will work in all major web browser without being afraid of being sued. Therefore, we need to look at how we can address and make the video element a usable option for showing video clips in a web browser.

The options, as I see them are:

  • Microsoft deciding to support Ogg Theora in IE9, exclusively or in addition to H.264. They do use Ogg for Microsoft Halo, and if they were to do this in IE9 it would effectively mean a market where every web browser would support an open format (but Safari, who would be forced to adapt). Therefore, if Microsoft would just do the right thing, and they can, it would mean a tremendous amount for the web as a whole.
  • Google recently acquired On2, and if they were to open-source their VP7 and VP8 codecs, every web browser could then implement that and we would all be happy (although open video would be even further away in the future then). :-) But, this could happen given Google’s track record with some other technologies.
  • MPEG LA declaring H.264 royalty-free on the web forever (yeah, like that will ever happen…).

They way I see it, Microsoft implementing Ogg Theora in IE 9 and Google open-sourcing On2 technologies are both actually plausible options, and really hopes this happens so we can have truly open video on the web. Because the web has to be open, for so many reasons, and I’d hate to see implementations of an element ruining that.

Posted in Developing,HTML5/HTML/XHTML,Technology,Web browsers |

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