Firefox video support expanding with WebRTC and H.264

Going against its initial hopes, Mozilla starts adding support for the patent-encumbered H.264 video compression standard. Perhaps it'll get revenge through WebRTC.

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
2 min read
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Mozilla, which bowed to the market power of the H.264 video compression technology last year, now has built support for the patent-encumbered standard into the Nightly version of Firefox on Windows 7.

Mozilla can't actually ship H.264 in its open-source product because of the patent licensing requirements, so it decided instead to adapt Firefox to draw on H.264 support built into newer operating systems. The first step is done -- if not fully tested and debugged -- on Windows 7, according to a Mozilla blog post today.

Mozilla had thrown its weight behind VP8, a royalty-free codec from Google, but it hasn't caught on nearly as widely as H.264, and Google scrapped a promise to drop H.264 from Chrome. Two years ago, Google said it would drop the support "in the next couple of months."

Part of H.264's clout stems from power-efficient decoding enabled by chips in just about every smartphone on the market today. On personal computers, Adobe Systems' Flash Player often handles video decoding, but it's barred from iOS.

Perhaps Mozilla will get its revenge through WebRTC, a nascent standard for real-time video or audio chat on the Web. The new Nightly version also has WebRTC support enabled by default. It's not clear what codec WebRTC-based video chat will use, but it's possible VP8 could be specified as mandatory to implement for the standard. A March showdown over WebRTC video could settle the matter, but it's also possible no codec at all will be specified, which is what happened with HTML video built into Web pages.

WebRTC faces a big challenge in the form of Microsoft, which prefers a lower-level approach it calls CU-RTC-Web. Microsoft believes WebRTC is difficult to implement, but one of its interoperability criticisms was made obsolete with the arrival of Chrome and Firefox that can communicate using WebRTC.

The new Firefox Nightly version also is adapted for the touch-centric interface of Windows 8.

The raw Nightly version of Firefox includes the latest patches; every six weeks it becomes Firefox Aurora, then Firefox beta, then the final release of Firefox.