Microsoft showed off what some are calling the killer app (a lame term really), Internet Explorer 9. It's got HTML 5 support (to what extent remains to be seen) and MP3, MP4 and H.264 support built in. That could be enough to push the industry towards using H.264 instead of an actual free codec.

What's the deal with H.264?

The conundrum comes in with the patenting. See H.264 is patented technology and in the US any product that contains an encoder or decoder must use a GPL license and so the software, in this case IE9, would have to allow for all rights for users which the GPL for H.264 allows. From Wikipedia:

A product which incorporates GPLed code must not rely upon a discriminatory patent license that would prohibit the user from exercising rights granted to them by the GPL. Thus, the right to distribute patent-encumbered code under those licenses as part of the product is revoked per the terms of the GPL and LGPL. It should be realized that the party who would enforce any such breach of copyright would be the people who hold copyright: its writers, whereby any suit on a breach of that clause would have to argue that there exist valid, applicable patents that apply to the capabilities GPL licenced code, a stance copyright holders have not taken.

Whozza, whazzit? Please consult with the nearest patent attorney for a full explanation. What I gather is that Microsoft couldn't restrict your rights as a user of IE9 if it inhibited your rights under the H.264 GPL. Then again, it's Microsoft so who knows what they'll actually get away with. However, the codes is currently in a royalty-free state. So I would imagine that they can restrict your rights in any way they wish and get away with it (which they do oh so often).

An easier solution would be Ogg Theora (supported in Firefox, Opera and Chrome currently) which was developed and patented by On2. On2 made an irrevocable, royalty-free license grant for any patent claims it might have over the software and any derivatives allowing anyone to use any VP3-derived codec for any purpose.

So Ogg Theora would be a more logical choice (as it's derived from VP3). However, the codes is still under-developed and there is much work to be done. If Firefox were smart, I would think that they would be pushing the development of it in hopes of it becoming the standard for HTML 5 instead of H.264. Plus, we've got a couple years yet until HTML 5 is ready so why not grow the codec to meet the need?

Internet Explorer 9 joined the ranks of Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome in supporting H.264 leaving Firefox and Opera out in the cold as some of the only browsers supporting Theora . Really, there's no reason that both couldn't be implemented in a browser from the standard code base. It would just decide which codec to use based on the encoding of the video file. But that would also require HTML 5 to allow for both. However, that could unduly complicate the matter.

Apple spoke out against Ogg being incorporated into HTML 5 on the basis that H.264 is more widely adopted and in use. They stated that "H.264 performs better and is already more widely supported, citing patents and the lack of precedents of "Placing requirements on format support", even at the "SHOULD" level, in HTML specifications." (Source: Wikipedia)

Where does it currently stand?

It would be helpful for interoperability if all browsers could support the same codecs. However, there are no known codecs that satisfy all the current players: we need a codec that is known to not require per-unit or per-distributor licensing, that is compatible with the open source development model, that is of sufficient quality as to be usable, and that is not an additional submarine patent risk for large companies. This is an ongoing issue and this section will be updated once more information is available. (The current HTML 5 video codec placeholder)

Formerly the HTML 5 standard simply called for Ogg support. Those two bolded causes above, are, in my opinion, specifically aimed at torpedoing the inclusion of Ogg Theora as some believe there is potential for it to come into patent problems later. However, Theora has been termed the continuation of the line of codecs (VP3) that On2 covered in the royalty-free clause and so there are few issues with its inclusion as that clause is irrevocable.

What it really sounds like (to me) is that there is some back street double dealing going on. Oddly, those that hold the tightest patent guardianship (Apple and Microsoft) are supporting H.264, which is not completely open source. Meanwhile, Firefox is support Theora and trying to get the community involved in fixing the problem of "sufficient quality."

Now Firefox is not alone in its support, Google Chrome, since version, has Theora support in it. So do SeaMonkey (since version 2.0) and Opera (since version 10.5).

Chrome also support H.264 as does Safari (since version 4). Internet Explorer currently can support it through a Google Chrome Frame.

Oddly, MPEG LA announced that it will extend its royalty-free license of the video codec for an additional five years. After those 5 years? Well then browsers would have to pay to use the codec presumably. That certainly sounds like additional submarine patent risk for large companies, does it not?

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Well I guess it's not really submarining since it was openly stated.

YouTube and Vimeo have both weighed in on the matter, also supporting H.264. Of course, most video at Vimeo is already encoded for that, so I think they're just being lazy and trying to look to the future and not have to change anything. Oddly it would probably save them money if they too helped develop Theora. YouTube, part of Google, could also support Theora logically. I mean, isn't their own parent company making a compatible browser and plugin for IE?

The Numbers Game

My Theora On H(TML5).264 Support browser penetration 600x176

As if all of it weren't complicated enough, here's the real deal, 22% of Internet users are using IE8. 20% are still using IE6. In fact, IE is 61.58% of the market. If they go H.264, many sites must. (Graph courtest of NetMarketShare)

If YouTube really wants to remain the top video spot in the world, they have to support the largest percentage. Hence, they go with H.264 since it will be supported by IE9 and Apple. Since Chrome isn't all that popular (5.61%), however, Firefox hold almost a quarter of the market (24.23%) and combined with Chrome (5.61%) and Opera (2.35%)  they make up the other third. Well, there's Safari which has 4.45% also.

Chrome has been growing in popularity, IE falling and Firefox hovering about 25%.It would take some drastic changes to suddenly put Theora in a potentially dominant position and that's probably as likely as Microsoft taking their entire browser project open source... as in not very.

My Solution

It would make sense for the browsers to band together and build Theora into a truly impressive, useful and full-featured codec, but that would be like Oil and Water having a mixer and actually managing to do it. Again, not very likely. Microsoft hates to give up market share on anything and if they can turn the tide in the favor of their browser and steal from the main competitor, Firefox, I have to believe they will and are doing just that. To even consider working together just to benefit the users and probably their own bottom line? Laughable. They would rather crush their opponents under their heel than shake hands with them and work together.

So on to my solution. IE 6 is dying, if you're an IE6 user, it's time to change. Why not change over to a whole new browser like Firefox or Chrome? Oh I know, you've got some strange love for IE and just can't live without it. But really, what has it done for you lately? Opened you up to internet exploitation, allowed your computer to be infected with malware, spamming software, adware and (as of just 4 days ago) invalid reference pointer vulnerability (in IE6 and 7, IE8 is protected).

Seriously, no matter what we, the ants that populate the world and use the software, do, the giants will step on us all the same. The only way to prevent them from doing that is to be really prickly so when they do step on us, they get hurt. How can you do that? Switch to an open source browser. Plus, browsers like Firefox have robust plug-in architectures and open APIs that allow almost anything to be done with them. I get all my football scores right in the status bar of Firefox. I also am notified when new Gmail arrives. Soon, there will be games available right in the Chrome of your browsers (I can't remember who is working on it but I just read about it) so no matter what page you are on or how fast your boss is, you can game in peace and hide it as fast as possible.

As for myself? I'm open source all the way baby. I've already dumped IE and Office in favor of Firefox and OpenOffice. I can do everything I need to with them and don't have to pay a red cent. Sure there are some performance issues with Firefox, but they seem better lately. I do have IE installed, I just don't use it unless I'm working on web development because to this day, it still can't manage to do everything that other browsers can. Web developers alone should weigh in on this matter and start making pages with content that works specifically for the HTML standard and not for specific browsers. This was made far easier with CSS since we can just build an IE specific stylesheet, but it's still bothersome.

It's all really just a battle of popularity. Web developers want their sites to be popular, so they have to develop for the largest audience. Powerhouses want to remain so (YouTube, Vimeo...) and so they go with the largest percentage. It's up to the end-users to decide what they want and then enact positive change to get it. The problem is that these issues are so convoluted (as evidenced by this over 1,700 word article) and they just can't be bothered to get all the info and make a truly informed decision. We're all busy with far more important things right? If the browser works most of the time we just stick with it and just simply complain about it. It would be far more productive to actually do something to remedy it, but we, as a society, are lazy.

  • Alexander Alisani

    " What’s the deal with H.264? "

    there is no deal, the problem is the open source community are a bunch of lazy supporters that are not standing up with theora, everybody is talking about open source video and html5 but nobody is promoting a solution to Deliver video through open streams you know like Theora, a good example is Videolans library which open source developers could develop a True Theora Browser Delivery plug-in through all the modern browsers,

    I have gone and created a Theora Browser plug-in that is able to stream Theora / Vorbis through the browsers such as Safari 4-5 ,Firefox 2-3-4,IE 6-7-9 , you don't believe me ?

    install this,

    unzip to desktop, and open index to see it fully working

    you can contact me here

  • pianom4n

    Best way this situation can be resolved: Everybody supports both.

    The main reason for supporting Ogg is that nobody should ever be forced to pay licensing to publish something on the Web. In this solution, nobody has to; you can use H.264 if you want (or need, like for phones, at least int the near future), but get ready to pay at some point.

    All video currently in H.264 will just work and the video tag will be a success. People will realize that in 5 years licensing fees are going to hit them, and new video will trend towards Theora (especially as it improves). Even if Theora doesn't get used much, knowing that there is a viable alternative will keep the MPEG-LA honest so they can't pull a Unisys and start charging absurd amounts because there's no alternative.

    To implement H.264, browsers should just tie into the OS support. For XP users (and Linux users without GStream Ugly), provide an official plugin (to sidestep GPL issues, don't include it in the actual browser) and suck up the licensing costs until XP dies (most Linux users install the Ugly plugins, so the cost of them is not really significant).

    Basically Mozilla has to trade Microsoft, "we'll support both if you do". Opera will follow Mozilla, and developers need to berate Safari users and make them install the Ogg plugin for Quicktime until Apple gives in and supports Ogg out of the box.

    (Every here goes for the audio tag, too, except the gap between Vorbis and AAC compared to Theora and H.264 is nothing.)

  • nonerz

    "See H.264 is patented technology and in the US any product that contains an encoder or decoder must use a GPL license"

    You need to re-think that sentence.

    Anyways HTML5 is a joke. Everyone will just use Flash.

    • George

      I stopped reading this article after that sentence.

      My opinion is that HTML5, while admittedly young, will be a serious contender to Flash and other competitors. You can't beat free.

      • Christophor Rick

        I'll not waste much of my time on this reply and simply quote Wikipedia:

        In countries where patents on software algorithms are upheld, the vendors of products which make use of H.264/AVC are expected to pay patent licensing royalties for the patented technology[8] that their products use. This applies to the Baseline Profile as well.[9] A private organization known as MPEG LA, which is not affiliated in any way with the MPEG standardization organization, administers the licenses for patents applying to this standard, as well as the patent pools for MPEG-2 Part 1 Systems, MPEG-2 Part 2 Video, MPEG-4 Part 2 Video, and other technologies. The last US MPEG LA patents for H.264 will not expire until 2028[10].

        On February 2, 2010 MPEG LA announced that H.264-encoded Internet Video that is free to end users would continue to be exempt from royalty fees until at least December 31, 2015. [11] However, other fees remain in place. The license terms are updated in 5-year blocks.

  • Urban Kompozure

    Great Article

  • JM

    Great article. It would seem that Google would have the greatest chance of developing the Ogg Theora codec since they just acquired On2. And honestly, who else could challenge Microsoft and Apple? Let's hope they have some plans for it. On2 has come a long way as a codec. I still remember a meeting I had with Stan Marder at the Duck Corp in NY before it became On2 (circa 1996). They have come a long way since then. All the content for and the SocialWrapper platform will continue to support open content standards.