Microsoft takes H.264 stand in Web video debate

Internet Explorer 9 will support only the H.264 video technology. And Microsoft raises intellectual property concerns regarding the rival Ogg format.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

Deepening a rift in a key Web standards debate, Microsoft said Thursday that Internet Explorer 9 will support the variety of Web video Apple built into Safari but not the one embraced by Firefox and Opera.

"In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video only," Internet Explorer General Manager Dean Hachamovitch said in a blog post. His reasons for the support: the format is widely used in the computing industry, from video cameras to Google's YouTube, it benefits from hardware decoding support that improves performance, and there are questions about the rights to use H.264's chief rival today, Ogg Theora.

IE leader Dean Hachamovitch
IE leader Dean Hachamovitch Microsoft

HTML5 video is a key feature in the Web page standard that's in the process of being overhauled after years of dormancy. Today, online video is delivered mostly through Adobe Systems' Flash Player, which can use H.264 behind the scenes to decode video, but Microsoft is in the process of joining Web technology advocates who hope to reproduce much of what Flash can do without proprietary plug-ins. Through this Web technology effort, the argument goes, video can become as ordinary on the Web as photos are today.

But the Web video vision is significantly hampered by this disagreement about the preferred video codec-technology that encodes and decodes video and audio. Imagine if all browsers could show graphics, but some could show only JPEG and others could show only PNG: people using the browsers would see broken Web pages unless developers took care to create different versions of the Web pages and deliver the appropriate one.

The Web video muddle undermines Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs' argument against Flash made Thursday. He argues that a collection of new Web technologies including HTML5's video can replace what Flash offers and touts the H.264 support in the iPhone, iPad, and Safari. But while the Web video codec debate continues, developers can use Flash to smooth over differences--as long as they don't need to reach the iPhone.

Firefox, which is open-source software, includes support for Ogg Theora. Even if Mozilla paid MPEG-LA the $5 million licensing fee for rights to include H.264 support, it wouldn't be permitted to include that in its open-source software, complicating the world for others that use the Mozilla code in their own projects. Consequently, Mozilla has been championing Ogg and working to improve its performance.

But Hachamovitch cast doubts on Ogg Theora, though he didn't mention it by name.

"The distinction between the availability of source code and the ownership of the intellectual property in that available source code is critical. Today, intellectual property rights for H.264 are broadly available through a well-defined program managed by MPEG LA. The rights to other codecs are often less clear," Hachamovitch said.

Unsurprisingly, Ogg fans were not happy with the post. "Completely unsurprising, but sad to see Microsoft throwing FUD into the mix with what could have been a simple post," said twittered Mozilla's Chris Blizzard.

Mozilla General Counsel Harvey Anderson has defended Ogg Theora, concluding there aren't intellectual property problems blocking its use. Ogg Theora originated as the VP3 codec from a company called On2 Technologies that Google acquired earlier this year. On2 released the technology for open use, but since then moved on with newer codecs.

Google's Chrome supports both H.264 and Ogg Theora.

And those newer products--most notably the unreleased VP8 codec--are a wild card Google holds. It acquired On2 with the motivation that "video compression technology should be a part of the Web platform." According to one report by NewTeeVee, Google plans to release VP8 as open-source software at its Google I/O conference in May with cooperation from Mozilla.

VP8 could resolve some quality concerns that have nagged Ogg Theora, but even then it has hurdles to overcome. Hardware decoding support is one, and the preference for H.264 by Microsoft and Apple is another. Even if VP8 is stellar, H.264 is entrenched, and it looks like video on the Web will employ multiple codecs for several years to come.