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.

Background

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 |

17 Comments

  • Trygve Lie says:

    What scares med about the whole h.264 issue is the option they have to actually put licensing cost on just having data stores in the format. MPEG LA have stated that they will not do this at this point it's still possible they will in the future.

    If one want to go clear of the fear that one might be slapped in the face with a huge licensing bill for having data stored in H.264 in the future there is only one option; Theora.

    I think it is mainly up too us developers and site owners to make the move. We must just dare to start using Theora and tell the visitors who use browsers only supporting H.264 they use a browser not supporting the open and free format we choose to support.

    Even if YouTube and Vimeo have only H.264 at this point there are some who dare to take the correct route. I'm very fond of Wikipedias push against more video content and in Theora format: http://videoonwikipedia.org/

    Lets grab our cameras and put video in the correct format out there now!!

  • lucideer says:

    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.

    Opera for Linux supports H.264

  • zota says:

    As someone pointed out to me, the keyword density for Robert Scoble with the word “fail” is quite high. The keyword density for Robert Scoble with the phrase "are you kidding me?" is through the roof. Based on this highly scientifistic analysis, I don't think we can trust a word that Robert Scoble says.

    Also, the keyword density of Theora with "total immunity from patent trolls" is quite low. Watch out!

  • Andy L says:

    This is Microsoft's chance to win back the hearts and minds of web developers.

    Do the right thing, Microsoft, adopt Theora now. Or will you once again leave it all to Google?

  • […] Overview of open video technologies […]

  • Paul Irish says:

    My friend spoke to a Mozilla guy at Libre Planet this last weekend who said Mozilla has a "big announcement" regarding video coming this week or next.

    The only news I can imagine that being is either 1) they are going to support H.264 or 2) they got permission from Google to use On2.

    Maybe…. both! :)

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Trygve,

    I totally agree, and if I encounter a scenario with publishing video on a web site, I definitely recommend an open format.

    lucideer,

    I had no idea about that, and unfortunately have no way to test that at the moment. Is it in any Linux distribution?

    My guess, though, is that it's probably some open format port, since Opera has claimed they can never afford to support it, and I don't see that happening on Windows or Mac.

    zota,

    Kind of a weird counter-argument, but if the word "sued" occurring all over the web page for a format you're considering aren't intimidating for you, be my guest.

    Difference is, the word sued in the MPEG LA news page is about facts, whereas your Google game doesn't have the same meaning in practice.

    Andy,

    It's definitely their chance; step up, Microsoft!

    Paul,

    Interesting! However, even if they were to support H.264 in any way, the potential royalty fees for publishers (well, beyond YouTube and Vimeo) could be staggering.

    My indication from people I know at Mozilla is that we shouldn't start worrying too much just yet, and Google and On2 was mentioned in that context, so we'll see. :-)

  • bruce says:

    Hi Mr Nyman

    Opera supports Ogg – both in the sense of "has codecs for" and "is in philosophical agreement with" Ogg.

    We started the work that eventually became HTML5 (http://dev.w3.org/html5/spec/introduction.html#history-1), and we proposed the video element (http://lists.whatwg.org/pipermail/whatwg-whatwg.org/2007-February/009702.html). Opera believes in an Open Web that is patent and royalty free, which is why we'll always support Ogg across all platforms and encourage content producers to use the format.

    But in our 10.50 release, we use GStreamer. Kroc Camen explains

    "This change adds a lot more flexibility and much better system integration … if GStreamer is available natively on the OS, Opera will use the OS-provided system instead. This should allow for a good playback experience in Linux. Opera believe in open formats and recommend using OGG media but the GStreamer backend will mean that even if a video is not OGG, it may still play as long as GStreamer has the right codec available" http://www.osnews.com/story/22677/_Re-_Introducin

    So, yes, under certain circumstances, H.264 plays. Ogg will always play.

    We don't hate H.264; we just believe that Ogg Theora is more "of the Web" as it's (as far as we know) royalty-free.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    bruce,

    Thank you! Both in line with that I thought and what I hoped.

  • Just a question: why would browser had support for VP7 or VP8, when they refuse to had support for Ogg Theora?

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Julien,

    It's a good question. One thing is that there are some arguments about possible submarine patents with Ogg (which is generally regarded as FUD) whereas that might be avoided with VP7 and VP8.

    The other is that if Google then only offer videos on YouTube with that codec, I'm sure other web browser vendors would follow suit.

  • Please, please, let's be more careful about the scope of the H.264 grace period. The 2015 extension is about the transmission ("broadcast") of H.264 video over the Internet being royalty-free until Dec 31 2015 when the video is free for the end user to view.

    That is, the grace period does not apply to encoding, decoding, transmission of video that the user pays to view or non-Internet free-to-view broadcast.

    (And yes, the actual transmission over the Internet step doesn't even involve anything H.264-specific. An HTTP GET can transfer any bytes. Patent licensing is weird.)

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Henri,

    Thanks for clarifying! And yes, the world of patents is indeed weird.

  • […] The codec question is not a simple issue, Robert Nyman has written a good article on the subject. […]

  • […] two months ago I wrote What Will Happen To Open Video On The Web? and expressed fear for the future of video on the web, and that the H.264 codec will never be […]

  • […] two months ago I wrote What Will Hap­pen To Open Video On The Web? and expressed fear for the future of video on the web, and that the H.264 codec will never be […]

  • […] written about video on the web before in What will happen to open video on the web? and The WebM video format – the saviour of open video on the web?, and to summarize, I think […]

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