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Vaulting patent barrier, Firefox gets support for most popular video format

Mozilla wants to keep patent-encumbered technology off the Web. But H.264 compression is widely used, and a deal with Cisco means Firefox can use it.

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Two technologies that are worlds apart, the open-source Firefox browser and the patent-encumbered H.264 video compression technology, now have been joined together.

Starting Tuesday, Firefox can use H.264 for online video chats that use the WebRTC standard, Mozilla Chief Technology Officer Andreas Gal said in a blog post. It can't yet use it for video embedded into Web pages, however.

The move should help people use apps on the Web that require video, and thus improve the capability of the Web overall compared to native apps for PCs and mobile devices. But it's also a bitter pill for Mozilla, which seeks to foster an open Web free of the kind of constraints such as H.264 royalty payments.

"Mozilla has always been an advocate for an open Web without proprietary controls and technologies. Unfortunately, no royalty-free codec has managed to get enough adoption to become a serious competitor to H.264," Gal said in the blog post.

H.264 is a codec -- short for encoder-decoder -- that governs how high-quality videos can be squeezed down to work with capacity-constrained network connections. To use it, companies must pay patent licensing royalties to a company called MPEG LA that distributes the payments to patent holders including Sony, Panasonic, Microsoft and the Fraunhofer Institute.

So how does open-source Firefox include software that's incompatible with its open-source license? By downloading the OpenH264 codec provided by Cisco, which pays licensing fees. Mozilla had backed Google's VP8 video codec, a royalty-free alternative to H.264.

"Mozilla continues to support the VP8 video format, but we feel that VP8 has failed to gain sufficient adoption to replace H.264," Gal said. Google's YouTube and Chrome use VP8's successor, VP9, and the company is working on VP10. But the video industry -- including mobile apps, cameras, smartphone processors, Blu-ray discs -- largely prefers H.264 and its sequel, HEVC/H.265.

Cisco, which has a big videoconferencing business, has been a big fan of WebRTC video chat. It strongly resisted Google's efforts to have VP8 specified as a required codec for the WebRTC standard, though. With the OpenH264 project and attendant royalty payments, Cisco gets a way to bring patent-hostile projects like Mozilla into the H.264 fold.

"For the time being we think that OpenH264 is a significant victory for the open Web because it allows any Internet-connected application to use the most popular video format," Gal said. "And while OpenH264 is not truly open, at least it is the most open widely used video codec."

Mozilla will evaluate OpenH264 support for embedded Web video "once support has been added," Gal said.