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With IE9, Web video issue remains deadlocked

The preview version of the Microsoft browser shows that lots of new standards will be useful on the Web. But HTML5 video is caught between two formats.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview release on Tuesday sent a strong message to Web programmers that a host of standards will become safer to use. But in the case of one standard, Web video, Microsoft arguably pushed one controversial impasse deeper into gridlock.

The standard in question involves Web video that doesn't require a plug-in such as Adobe Systems' Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight. It's one of the big elements of HTML5--the Hypertext Markup Language standard now under development and aiming to expand the abilities of Web pages and Web applications.

The rough version of IE9 that Microsoft demonstrated includes HTML5 video encoded with a particular technology called H.264. Apple's Safari also supports this encoding and decoding technology, or codec.

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But Mozilla is adamantly opposed to open-source-unfriendly H.264, supporting the rival Ogg Theora codec instead, and Opera is in that camp with its new version 10.5. Google's Chrome supports both, tying the score at Ogg Theora 3, H.264 3.

It's no surprise Microsoft signed up for H.264. It owns many of the patents in the technology, which is licensed on behalf of Microsoft and several other patent holders by a group called the MPEG LA. And Microsoft of course isn't afraid of proprietary technology. H.264 support is included in Windows 7. Finally, H.264 by most accounts provides superior quality than Ogg Theora.

It's not inconceivable Microsoft could add Ogg Theora support in the future, but for now at least, Microsoft did little to break the logjam. That means Web sites with video will either have to include two streams for different browsers or--and this is more likely in the near term--continue to use Flash. (Much Flash video, by the way, uses the H.264 codec.)

The HTML5 standard describes how to build video into Web pages but, because of the disagreement among the major browser makers, leaves the codec unspecified. One wild card in the situation is what will happen now that Google has completed its acquisition of On2 Technologies, the company whose earlier VP3 codec underlies Ogg Theora and that was working on a newer codec called VP8. Google said regarding the acquisition that "video compression technology should be a part of the Web platform."

Dean Hachamovitch, IE general manager
IE GM Dean Hachamovitch Microsoft

The preview version of IE9 also didn't lend Microsoft's clout to a number of other developing standards: WebGL, which is designed to bring hardware-accelerated video to the Web; Canvas, which makes it easier to construct two-dimensional graphics such as bar charts on Web pages; and Indexed DB, which is designed to enable Web applications to work even when there's no network connection.

Indexed DB support seems likely. Microsoft has endorsed the technology and over a rival called Web SQL, which along with a Mozilla's similar stance should help give Indexed DB a big boost in the HTML standardization process.

In an interview, though, IE General Manager Dean Hachamovitch wouldn't commit. Pointing to the "fun controversy there," he said, "We've got some of smartest peole engaged in a bunch of conversations between the principals right now."

He was cooler about WebGL, though, because adopting it will require Web developers to learn a new variety of programming.

"WebGL is yet another markup," Hachamovitch said. "How much do devs want that?"