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Commentary: HTML5 Video—Must It Be Free?

Last week's articles about Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) browser and Wikimedia's use of an open-source video codec (Ogg Theora, based on the older VP3 codec) have elicited responses not only among readers but also between StreamingMedia.com writers.

On one hand, the general consensus about HTML5 video and audio tags as a natural progression of web standards is widely held. The benefit, as some see it, is the ability to embed this content directly into the browser without the need for plug-in architectures, although there is some debate as to whether H.264 will be distributed with stand-alone browsers such as Firefox, or require a subsequent download of a plug-in to maintain H.264 licensing schemes.

On the other hand, some question whether or not HTML5 will be widely adopted. One part of the argument against widespread adoption is Internet Explorer's widespread adoption, with the argument that IE6 in particular still has a sizable number of users.

Like all statistics, though, this one is tricky to pin down. Jan Ozer, another writer for StreamingMedia.com who has done an excellent piece on HTML5 video versus Flash (which we'll touch on later in this article), brought up the point in an email dialogue about the addressable market size of HTML5 browsers.

According to a set of statistics that Jan was using, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (in all flavors) accounts for 61.58% of market penetration, with Firefox at less than a quarter (24.23%) and Chrome and Safari both in low single digits (5.61% and 4.45%, respectively). This would mean, Jan noted, that HTML5 draft browsers sit at less than 1/3 of all installed browsers.

On the other hand, while that statistic appears to accurately represent the installed base of browsers, the interesting trend I found in my research is that overall usage swings much more towards HTML5-draft browsers. Looking at usage trends, it's clear that early 2009 was a watershed for non-IE browsers, all of which support HTML5 in its draft form: as of February 2010, Internet Explorer carried a little over 1/3 of total internet usage (35.3% broken down relatively equally between IE8, IE7 and IE6) while Firefox accounts for 46.5% and Chrome has almost 12% of all browsing usage.

In the long-term thinking around the video and audio tags—and the potential of a single native codec in each browser—these types of debate matter, since we're talking about HTML5(+) inclusions that will directly impact various parts of the industry.

Which brings us to a question about how the Open Video Alliance (and open source advocates in general) see the world of video and video streaming, which has been dominated by commercial software groups.

The Case Against H.264
The OVA views the World Wide Web through the lens of WWW history, and extrapolates examples from the past to argue that the web must remain free from patented technologies that could generate license fees which, in turn, would impact open-source browser manufacturers and end users.

Along these lines, the specter of the GIF image file format is often raised. GIF was the basis for initial image viewing on early web browsers, but a few years after the web gained in popularity, Unisys staked its claim to the patent for GIF and began demanding payment for the widespread use of the format.

For Christopher Blizzard, an open-source advocate, the specter of GIF is a warning sign for the inclusion of H.264 as an HTML5 codec.

"We started with a raw [external] player delivered by Real Media," Blizzard writes, "then on to media embedded directly in pages via Windows Media and Quicktime. More recently video on the web has been a platform play by Flash. And finally to a place where media becomes a first class citizen on the web without a single source provider."

Blizzard continues by showing examples of HTML5 video implementations, such as those by Google and Vimeo mentioned above, saying that HTML5 video adoption is "changing for the better, and faster than I think anyone could have imagined."

"The players from Google and Vimeo do present a pretty serious problem, though," Blizzard continued. "Each of these requires a proprietary H.264 codec to be able to view them. These codecs aren’t compatible with the royalty-free web standards that the rest of the web is built on. The fact that they are being so unabashedly hyped along with the new darling of the web—HTML5—means that most people don’t understand that something very dangerous is taking place behind the scenes."

GIF is then mentioned, although Blizzard fails to mention that the industry rapidly responded by creating the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) file format, which was both royalty-free and also added additional benefits such as an alpha channel. Still, he brings up the point of what might happen a few years down the line once H.264 is fully established as one of the HTML5 video codecs of choice.

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