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HTML5 Video Tags: Inevitable or Pipe Dream?

As reported a few weeks ago, representatives from the Mozilla Foundation's Mozilla Project showcased a pre-release version of Firefox 3.5 at the Open Video Conference in New York.

One of the features that received a significant amount of press was Mozilla's inclusion of open-source audio and video codecs, namely Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora, natively in the browser. A Mozilla representative explained this approach was a first step toward brining open-source codecs on to an equal footing with proprietary codecs, such as On2's VP6, VP7, and VP8, as well as standards-based codecs such as H.264 and VC-1, both of which have licensing requirements from their key patent holders.

Unfortunately, while the Firefox 3.5 release candidate has been available for the last week, and over 5 million copies were downloaded in the first day, the intent to include video tags in HTML 5 seems to have hit a roadblock with some of the key browser manufacturers, who also happen to be key patent holders in the standards-based codecs mentioned above.

Is the dream of open-source codecs in all major browser platforms, via inclusion in an HTML 5 standard, dead on arrival or merely delayed?

To answer that, let's step back a few months to look at how the strategy has played out.

Back in January, Mozilla granted the Wikimedia Foundation $100,000 to fund development of the Ogg container format, in addition to open-source video and audio codecs. The reasoning given in January was the same as a Wikimedia representative gave at the Open Video Conference: to allow all media content in Wikipedia and Wikimedia to be viewed in open-source codecs, freeing Wikipedia from reliance on a proprietary or standards-based (patented) codec.

"Open standards for audio and video are important because they can be used by anyone for any purpose without royalties, and can be inspected and improved by an open community," said Erik Möller, Deputy Director of Wikimedia, on his blog when the $100,000 grant was announced. "Today, video and audio on the web are dominated by proprietary technologies, most frequently patent-encumbered codecs wrapped into closed-source player widgets. Wikimedia and Mozilla want to help to build a web where video and audio are first class citizens: easy to use and manipulate by anyone, without compulsory royalty schemes or other barriers to participation."

Möller's objections to closed-source content have been somewhat abated with H.264 and VC-1 being open for inspection, but the patent questions and licensing fees are still firmly in place, as reported in an article earlier this year on the labyrinthian H.264 licensing issues. Adobe's recent announcement, that it will provide the Real Time Media Protocol as open software code, has yet to be tested against similar potential patent and licensing issues.

As for the video and audio codes, and the Ogg container that houses them, all have been around for quite some time, with work being done on the Theora video codec and the Vorbis audio codec for more than five years. Ogg Vorbis has made some inroads, both as plug-ins for major desktop player applications as well as in mobile devices: telephones based on Google's Android platform support Ogg Vorbis audio files.

Yet the very fact that these codecs have been around, often sitting dormant for extended periods of time as the open-source community's interest waxed and waned, is providing firepower for some arguments against including them natively in the HTML 5 standard.

"HTML isn't supposed to define content codecs," said Prince McLean of AppleInsider, spinning a long article about the topic from an Apple perspective. "Even if it were, Ogg Theora, commercially abandoned nearly a decade ago, doesn't have what it takes to deliver video on the increasingly mobile web."

McLean's comments, pointing out that Ogg Theora is ironically based around VP3 which was open-sourced many years ago, belie the fact that recent gains in the quality of Theora may provide opportunities for the open-source community to show it can compete with quality proprietary and standards-based codecs.

The folks at Ars Technica, a respected technology blog, have a slightly differing view.

"Although HTML 5 is still in the draft stage, several of its features have already been widely adopted by browsers like Safari, Chrome, and Firefox," writes Ars Technica's Ryan Paul. "Among the most compelling is the "video" element, which has the potential to free Web video from its plugin prison and make video content a native first-class citizen on the Web—if codec disagreements don't stand in the way."

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