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It has come to my attention that people are getting rather confused about what constitutes freedom and openness in web standards. Over the past few days there has been a lot of buzz around Google’s decision to drop support for H.264 format in HTML5 video and, to my surprise, a large number of people are actually against the move.
I’ll try to sum up the arguments from the perspective of all the players involved.
A bit of background
H.264 was developed by Apple and the Joint Video Team in 2003 in order to compress high quality video which can be streamed over the Internet. On2 Technologies, which was acquired by Google in February 2010, developed the VP8 codec for the same purpose. VP8 was said to far outperform H.264 but this is a topic of heated discussion. VP8 has been open sourced by Google since the acquisition and they have built the WebM project from it.
WebM was developed for the purpose of providing a sophisticated yet open video compression technology for the web (and beyond that as well). Flash uses H.264 for video and it is currently undecided whether HTML5 will use H.264 or WebM as the standard for video.
H.264 is the accepted standard for encoding video, not only on the web but on offline formats like MP4 and Blu-ray discs. It is undeniably the most widely used video encoding format in existence… however it is also one of, if not the most efficient method, of compressing high definition video while hardly sacrificing quality. On top of that the MPEG LA, which is the group that oversees the patents covering H.264, has stated that they will never charge royalties for video that is free to end users.
In other words, you will never pay royalties to use Youtube which currently uses H.264 encoding in the majority of its Flash-based videos. From the Apple/Microsoft point of view there is no need for a discussion; HTML5 video should use the best, most popular and also “free” option which is H.264.
Products that encode and decode H.264 will be liable for royalty payments to the MPEG LA consortium and that includes the Firefox and Opera web browsers. Both these browsers can be freely downloaded by anyone, and the companies which oversee those projects make absolutely no money from end users. If their browsers were to decode HTML5 video using H.264 they, and numerous other companies and organisations around the world, could potentially have massive unnecessary costs. Small companies would simply not agree to it and would outright avoid HTML5. Video, progression and innovation of HTML5 as a whole would be stunted. From the Mozilla/Opera point of view the topic is not up for discussion; HTML5 video must have a patent free codec and the best option available at the moment is WebM.
Sticking with the “do no evil” philosophy, Google has taken an objective approach for a long time and, up until recently, has supported both H.264 and the open options (Ogg Theora and WebM). However, it became very clear very quickly that neither of the two parties involved were budging on their decision so in the interest of conflict resolution and progression of the HTML5 specification Google had to be the tie breaker. At the time Ogg Theora was far too inferior and H.264 was far too proprietary. Google decided to fork out US$133 million from its own coffers to get hold of the best codec out there and they selflessly released the codec to the world in order for everyone to have free high quality video on the web. From Google’s point of view the issue is now settled; HTML5 video will have the best of both worlds.
We have video on the web already, we don’t care what encoding it uses and we don’t even mind downloading a third party plugin (like Flash) in order to watch videos. Google’s decision not to include H.264 in Google Chrome for HTML5 video doesn’t matter to us either because Chrome comes with Flash and that’s all we need to watch videos at the moment. We like the idea of a free web that HTML5 is championing but we are not entirely sure what that means. Apple fanboys and open source fanboys will continue to side with their respective teams but overall we hope that our best interests are being looked after by consumer watchdogs and the corporations that we support.
The naive notion that our interests are being looked after by the corporate world persists and it’s for that reason that computing and the information industry remain inaccessible to a large portion of the global population. Apple and Microsoft certainly don’t need any royalty payments and I sincerely believe that they are not trying to make a quick buck either. What they are interested in is control… they simply can’t compete with a US$0 pricetag but even the slightest price hike goes a long way in dissolving the competition.
Google is not the selfless evangelist it would have us believe either. An inexpensive web means a greater advertising audience which in turn means greater ad revenue for Google. Consumers need to look after their own interests, and the best solution is the one which distributes and decentralises control to the largest degree.
An absolutely free and open web is the optimal outcome and, in this situation, WebM is that solution, regardless of who’s technology it is.