A disagreement between Google and Mozilla is making a once-obscure debate into a real issue for those who watch Web video or host it on their own sites.
Last week, Google's YouTube announced early support for HTML5 video, which can be built directly into Web pages and viewed with browsers without relying on a plug-in such as Adobe Systems' Flash, Microsoft's Silverlight, or Apple's QuickTime. Another Web video site, Vimeo, followed suit.
Native video on a Web page sounds nice, and many Web companies support the effort broadly. But there's one big devil in its detail: the HTML5 specification, still under development, doesn't say which "codec" technology should be used to encode and decode video, and different browsers and Web sites support different standards.
YouTube, which delivers vastly more video streams over the Web than any competitor, has come down on one side of the divide, supporting the H.264 codec for HTML5 video on its TestTube site. But after Google made the move, several involved in developing Mozilla's Firefox browser began preaching a royalty-free alternative called Ogg Theora.
Mozilla grew to its present status of second-place browser in large measure by the power of word of mouth, and there's evidence the Mozilla community has begun making itself heard. After an Ogg Theora petition request on a Mozilla mailing list, requests for Ogg Theora support are on both on the YouTube product top ideas and hot ideas list.
Google wouldn't comment on whether it plans to add Ogg Theora support or what it would take to convince it to do so. However, it did leave the door open.
"Support for HTML5 is just a TestTube experiment at this time and a starting point. We can't comment specifically on what codecs we intend to support, but we're open to supporting more of them over time. At the very least we hope to help further this active and ongoing discussion," the company said in a statement.
$5 million licensing fee
Mozilla would have to pay $5 million to license the H.264 codec from MPEG-LA, the industry group that oversees the technology, said Mike Shaver, Mozilla's vice president of engineering in a blog post, and that doing so wouldn't grant rights of those such as Linux operating system companies who build products employing Mozilla's browser.
"These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content. And if H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized Web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers, those bringing the Web to new devices or platforms, and those who would build tools to help content and application development," Shaver said.
Nothing requires only one video technology to prevail. After all, different graphics formats including JPEG, GIF, and PNG are in wide use today on the Web, and today's widely used Flash technology for video will remain a fixture for years.
But supporting multiple standards takes developer time and makes Web sites more complicated. So, in the absence of a prevailing standard, Web site developers are more likely to sit on the sidelines.
A long-running issue
The difficulties have been brewing for months behind the scenes in the HTML5 standardization process. The standard's editor, Google employee Ian Hickson, decided last year against specifying a video codec in the HTML5 standard. "After an inordinate amount of discussions, both in public and privately, on the situation regarding codecs for video and audio in HTML5, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship," he said in a blog post.
HTML5 video support is just arriving in Web browsers. Firefox of course supports Ogg Theora, and Opera is working on it. Apple's Safari, though, supports H.264. Internet Explorer supports neither, and Google's Chrome supports both.
YouTube and Vimeo support H.264, but not all have gone that route. Dailymotion and Wikipedia embraced Ogg Theora
Most Web sites will have to protect users from this confusion by checking what browser they're using and delivering an appropriately formatted Web page. If a desired HTML5 video format isn't supported, the Web page can fall back to Flash.
But HTML5 video offers some mechanisms for tighter integration with the Web page than Flash. To take advantage of that, developers would have to offer substantially different versions of their Web pages--one with the integration and one without it.
'Something very dangerous'
Mozilla's reflex to steer clear of patent-encumbered technology isn't academic. Unisys started seeking licensing revenue for the GIF format based on compression patents it held, but didn't start until 1999, years after the format grew popular.
"Most people don't understand that something very dangerous is taking place behind the scenes," said Chris Blizzard, who leads developer relations for Mozilla, in a blog post. "Unisys was asking some Web site owners $5,000 to $7,500 to able to use GIFs on their sites...We're looking at the same situation with H.264, except at a far larger scale."
And YouTube's move is a big step toward cementing H.264's position in HTML5 video, he argued.
"Their choice for H.264 had an immediate effect. It's a signal to the market that it's OK to start using H.264 as the main codec for HTML5 video," Blizzard said.
The prevailing wisdom is that H.264 offers superior quality over Ogg Theora. But Blizzard argues that Mozilla has helped the Xiph project from which the Ogg Theora format came is better, and the Ogg Vorbis audio-only codec is superior to MP3: "On the quality side what we've been able to do at Mozilla, with the help of the rest of the Xiph community, is to show that even though Theora is based on older, royalty-free technology, it does at least as well as H.264 in practice (although not always in theory.)"
Mozilla programmer Robert O'Callahan raised another issue: H.264 licensing fees could increase.
"Currently providing H.264 content on the Internet is zero-cost, but after 2010 that will almost certainly change," O'Callahan said. "We won't know much about the terms until the end of this month. The key issue is not exactly how much it will cost, but that if you want to publish H.264 you will probably have to hire lawyers and negotiate a license with the MPEG-LA.
Cutting the Gordian Knot
If this situation seems insufficiently complicated, there's another wrinkle that could come from Google.
But this one has the potential to simplify things.
That's because Google is trying to acquire On2 Technologies, the company whose earlier codec work underlies the Ogg formats. In Google's announcement of the planned acquisition, Sundar Picahai, Google's vice president of product management, had this tantalizing rationale to offer: "Today video is an essential part of the Web experience, and we believe high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the Web platform."
Of course, Google first must convince the On2 shareholders to agree, and it's had to sweeten the offer already. After that, it would have to convince browser companies and others involved in HTML standardization to go along with the idea--and it should be noted that browser makers Microsoft and Apple have patents covered by H.264.
But Apple has a growing media business through iTunes--and its Lala acquisition shows it has some interest in streaming media, too. Microsoft, meanwhile, has begun professing enthusiasm for Web standards.
So while the Web is guaranteed years of changes in Web video--if indeed it ever fully settles down--there is potential here for reconciliation.