How Microsoft and Google can solve video on the web

As always, there is so much discussion going on about HTML5 and video on the web, and I thought I’d suggest a solution to it all.

Common assumptions and thoughts

Let’s go through the most common comments about video first:

  • Google claim they want to be open, but all it is about is just making Microsoft look bad/get companies to invest in the format they offer (WebM).
  • Microsoft only care about H.264 since they are a part of MPEG-LA and make money from it.
  • WebM isn’t really open, there could potentially be liability issues.
  • The H.264 codec has the best hardware and software support.

While all of above might be true, or not, to me it really doesn’t matter. We can discuss politics and motives to no end, but at the end of the day, I don’t find it likely that Microsoft and Google will sing join hands, sing Kumbaya and agree about everything.

That doesn’t rule out cooperation, though. But before I touch on that, let me just talk about where we are today and why I think it doesn’t matter that much.

H.264 is the de-facto standard, and everyone should use it

Microsoft recently wrote the blog post HTML5 and Web Video: Questions for the Industry from the Community where they discuss their views on H.264 and potential problems with WebM – it’s a necessary read to get their perspective.

However, for me, the argument that we should go for a format with obvious worries about patents and ownership just because it currently has the most widespread support is really not right. If we had gone with the “build for what we have” stance we would still be developing for IE6, instead of looking forward to what we actually want and need to make the web better.

What we need to establish, right now, is a video format that is just as open as every other aspects of HTML, CSS and JavaScript and get that supported in every web browser. This is not an option – it is what we have to do.

My suggestion

I understand Microsoft’s fear when it comes to liability and risk for intellectual property, and given their history they are afraid of getting burned. Fair enough. But both Google and Microsoft, listen to me now:

Feel free to blog about your thoughts, get community feedback and see it from different perspectives. Do what you need to communicate your company’s thoughts on these matter.

But also, please, talk to each other. If you are worried about the legal aspects, just sit down with your entourage of lawyers, look at the options, and just make sure WebM is water-proof. If it’s about quality, without a doubt you have the engineering skills to make it as good as it needs to be.

If either of those fails, look at another format. But you need to solve this. You are the major players, you have both the money and competence to make sure open video on the web is something that will be a viable option for all kinds of consumers and producers.

Please, take care of this.

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

11 Comments

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  • Steve Williams says:

    Why can’t we have both H.264 and WebM supported in all the main browsers? Surely that’s the open solution: use whichever you want from this list of paid/free formats?

    From what I understand, Google, Mozilla and Opera could add support for H.264 without paying royalties since their browsers are free.

    Microsoft and Apple could add WebM support to their browsers too, since it’s open source. Or so you’d think, then you read that if they did and subsequently decide WebM infringes MPEG-LA patents and sue Google, they lose the rights to use it: http://www.webmproject.org/license/bitstream/

    So we need Google to drop that clause, or MPEG-LA to agree WebM does not infringe their patents. Then, maybe, we could have a brighter future for web video (please!).

  • mdmadph says:

    From what I’ve seen, there is no way to show that any codec is “water proof.” It’s all about tying things up in court and trying to bankrupt your opponent through legal fees.

    The only reason why Microsoft’s choice of codec seems “safer” is because they’ve got the money and army of lawyers to back it up.

  • Robert says:

    Representatives from Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla, Firefox, and Google talk constantly as part of the specification process. So, not just in WHATWG and HTML5 WG at W3C, but in just about every W3C group. I signed up and tried to participate in the WHATWG/W3C efforts around the time W3C started their own HTML5 WG. Here’s what the mailing list sounded like to my ears (this was before Chrome, so no Google):

    Most People: We need a baseline codec across all the browsers for this video thing to really catch on. How about we require Ogg as a baseline? It’s open and royalty free.

    Mozilla: We love open source and we’re an OSS company. We’ll support Ogg.

    Opera: We’re cool and quirky, but fly under the radar. We’ll support Ogg, too.

    Apple: We’re only supporting Quicktime formats, and we think H.264 is the way to go. There is a risk of submarine patents/litigation in any video format that isn’t licensed. Apple is worth suing to patent holders. We don’t want to end up getting sued, so we’re backing the format that we know will indemnify us.

    Microsoft: Ditto. We’re on the H.264 bandwagon and we don’t want to get sued either.

    Everyone: But… nooooo!

    BBC and some other folks: We have this cool / interesting codec that we’re working on that we’d be OK with giving a royalty free license to, as required by the W3C.

    Everyone: That sounds promising.

    Apple and Microsoft: Seriously, we’re really, really, really scared of getting sued. We aren’t budging. You little guys might not have to worry about it, but patent holders will come after us, even if they have to wait.

    Opera and Mozilla: We’re really, really serious about not paying MPEG LA, and we’re really, really serious about OSS. We aren’t budging.

    Hixie: Ok, we’re not going to include any codec requirements because an unimplemented standard is not a standard.

    – END SCENE –

    It was a foregone conclusion several years ago that web authors would have to support two video formats to deliver cross-browser video (H.264 and Ogg at the time). This hasn’t changed. Google has just muddied the waters with WebM and got everyone’s knickers in a wad.

    As far as I can tell, Chrome will still support Ogg, as will Firefox and Opera. Chrome removed H.264. Firefox (and I imagine Opera) are adding support for WebM. So, Safari and IE will require H.264 and Firefox, Opera, and Chrome will require WebM or Ogg. Authors still have to make two different encodings of their video, but we now get to pick between WebM and Ogg. If you think WebM provides better quality over Ogg, encode in WebM and H.264. If not or you don’t care, encode in Ogg since Ogg clearly has more support today than WebM.

    I was mad at Google for dropping H.264, but now that I’ve had time to think on it, it’s no different than before Google dropping H.264. The only thing that makes me mad is that Google pushed this new format as better than Ogg, causing all the uproar, and they haven’t even offered a suite of tools for content developers. I still don’t know how to make a WebM video without having to compile software. WebM is still, at least to normal people, vaporware (unless something changed in the past week or so).

    Also, it’s worth mentioning that the MPEG LA is now making a call for patents that are essential to WebM. MPEG LA is prepping for an attack now that there is an open video codec that is backed by someone worth suing. This is exactly what Apple and Microsoft predicted would happen if they backed Ogg. The WebM topic is only going to get worse.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Steve,

    Well, problem is for content producers. You can’t offer pay video with H.264 without paying licensing fees, and frankly, I’m not sure about the other “free” usage they offer either.

    mdmadph,

    Well, in that case, Microsoft could just as well take a risk with an open codec, right?

    Robert,

    Thanks for the recap, I liked the storytelling. :-)
    Thing is with MPEG LA, though, is that Microsoft and Apple has a strong part/interest in it, so I believe they could squash (or be behind) such a thing.

    I sincerely believe Microsoft could change this if they just dared too.

  • Robert says:

    Robert,

    Thanks, I try to keep it entertaining ;)

    A correction to my previous comment: Apparently MPEG LA does not indemnify, which definitely adds a lot of suspicion to Microsoft and Apple’s arguments against using an open format unless they honestly believe that it is impossible that H.264 doesn’t infringe on any patent.

    Apple and Microsoft are both licensors and contributors to the MPEG LA. AFAIK, they don’t make up 100% of the MPEG LA, but they are both vested. They both pay royalties and get paid (partial) royalties by the MPEG LA. They both may be behind pushing for the MPEG LA to sue, but I doubt anyone except Microsoft, Apple, and MPEG LA know for sure.

    That said, they can’t stop someone from suing them over a patent if they ship an open codec, and I think that’s the end of the story for supporting an open video format as far as they are concerned. They’ve stuck to that for at least since before the W3C HTML WG started, and I don’t expect them to change. If you listen to the first half of TWIG Episode 77, Kevin Marks says he tried to get Ogg into an old version of Quicktime, and Apple told him no for the same reason Apple is giving us now for not supporting an open format.

    Ignoring hardware acceleration, de facto standards, and the like, it would be awesome to have an open codec at the core of everything. However, this seems like a religious standoff that’s as likely to be resolved as Jewish/Muslim relations over the Holy Land. I’m not sure this is resolvable without patent reform or both Apple and Google doing a 180.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Robert,

    I think that that’s where the gist of the problem is too. But if Google, Mozilla and Opera can do WebM, I’m certain Microsoft and Apple could cover themselves as much as possible to when it comes to the legal aspects.

    Only the future can tell.

  • Steve Williams says:

    MPEG-LA did clarify that free to view content was free from royalties (http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20100825006629/en) and the maximum increase those paying royalties would face in future (http://www.mpegla.com/main/programs/atsc/pages/FAQ.aspx see last item).

    If a publisher intends to charge for content, then it’s a business decision to pay royalties to MPEG-LA, or exclude 160 million iOS devices while decimating the battery life of all Android devices to date, which have no hardware support for WebM or Flash.

    From my own limited publishing experience and from using the web, most opt for H.264 with fallback to Flash, as this gives the widest distribution for the least amount of work. I don’t see that changing unless WebM gets more traction in hardware support, or Google re-encodes YouTube to be WebM/Flash only ^^ logical next move?

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Steve,

    Without going to deep into it, let’s just say that my trust in MPEG-LA isn’t that big…

    The problem with royalties is that not everyone can afford them, and also that data, in my opinion, on the web should really be free from licenses.

    Is that hard given iOS domination right now? Sure. But to me, that doesn’t mean that we have to give up and just lean back and give it to Apple.

    I do believe WebM will, and is getting more hardware traction, but yeah, YouTube changing would definitely change the scene.

  • Robert says:

    As an update to my previous statement about WebM being vaporware because there are no tools to create it, Dive Into HTML5 has been updated with information about a program called Miro Video Converter that encodes WebM. It looks like this Miro program will make web video much easier to deal with moving forward as it can encode H.264, Ogg, and WebM.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Robert,

    Yes, Miro is quite good and the tool I use for it.

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