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HTML5 Video Tags: Inevitable or Pipe Dream?

The "plugin prison" is perhaps where the most controversy comes into play, as Microsoft - makes of the dominant Internet Explorer browser - understandably have a preference to see VC-1 and Silverlight native to the browser, while Apple - maker of the cross-platform Safari browser - has a vested interest in seeing H.264 dominate, as it holds several MPEG-4 and H.264 patents.

On the other side of the browser wars, the well-established Firefox browser and the always-innovative Opera browser are both pushing for open-source codecs to be included in HTML 5. Google's Chrome, another browser based on the WebKit that Apple's Safari also uses for its rendering, is playing both sides, with support for Ogg Theora and H.264.

More recent events in this tug-of-war have been brought to light by the specifications editor of the HTML 5 working group, Ian Hickson. In a recent email, Hickson gave his take on just where the major vendors fall.



Ogg Theora take; Hickson commentary



No default implementation of Ogg Theora, citing lack of hardware support, uncertain patent landscape.


H.264, Ogg Theora

Implemented, but not suitable for YouTube; says cannot provide the H.264 codec license to third-party distributors of Chromium


Ogg Theora

Implemented; refuses to implement H.264, citing the obscene cost of the relevant patent licenses.


Ogg Theora

Implemented; refuses to implement H.264, as they would not be able to obtain a license that covers their downstream distributors.



Unknown; no comment on their intent to support the video tag at all

Hickson also added that "the positions are relatively subtle and so it's likely that I have oversimplified matters."

A bigger unanswered question is whether or not this push for the inclusion of open-source codecs, which has been in plain view for at least six months, is reaching a climax now due to the strength of free-speech and open-source advocacy or activism. Several on-stage and off-stage comments at the Open Video Conference talked specifically about activism and the intent to engage large users (corporations, universities, and others) on the topic of switching to open-source codecs. In essence, then, the inclusion of open-source codecs in the HTML 5 standard would have provided an easy way to entice these targeted groups to switch from proprietary or standards-based codecs to open-source codecs.

In an email conversation with Andy Beach this morning, Beach pointed out that the locking down of even an open-source codec could potentially stifle innovation.

"While Theora is open source and license free, it is not a competitor with h.264 in terms of quality today," said Beach, who yesterday assumed the role of VP of Marketing at Portland-based Elemental Technologies. "Until it adds some of the modern codec features like b frames (bi-directional frames) it's unlikely to be a serious challenge on the quality front. I encourage the open source community to keep pushing Theora forward but also caution that locking down a single codec to the HTML 5 standard creates a 'poison pill' making it hard for large companies to support the specification if their existing workflow can't accomodate the new standard. Defining a specification that supports multiple codecs, so that we all have options available, is only going to happen if they see the tag gain support quickly."

For his part, Hickson seemed willing to implement Ogg Theora in the HTML 5 standard, but then realized it will be implemented on a browser-by-browser basis anyway, as it has been in Firefox 3.5.

"I considered requiring Ogg Theora support in the spec, since we do have three implementations that are willing to implement it," wrote Hickson, "but it wouldn't help get us true interoperabiliy, since the people who are willing to implement it are willing to do so regardless of the spec, and the people who aren't are not going to be swayed by what the spec says."

In the end, though Hickson ended up deciding to leave a specific codec out of the mix.

"After an inordinate amount of discussions, both in public and privately, on the situation regarding codecs for video and audio tags in HTML5, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship," said Hickson, adding that he has "therefore removed the two subsections in the HTML5 spec in which codecs would have been required, and have instead left the matter undefined, as has in the past been done with other features like the image tag and image formats, the embed tag and plugin APIs, or Web fonts and font formats. "

Hickson didn't completely close the door, however, noting that, should Ogg Theora continue to improve, and if hardware support were to emerge, then only one additional Apple objection would need to be overcome.

"Google ships support for the [Theora] codec for long enough without getting sued that Apple's concern regarding submarine patents is reduced," wrote Dickson, "and Theora becomes the de facto codec for the Web. Alternatively, the remaining H.264 baseline patents owned by companies who are not willing to license them royalty-free expire, leading to H.264 support being available without license fees, and H.264 becomes the de facto codec for the Web."

"When either of these happen, I will reconsider updating HTML5 accodingly," Hickson added.

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