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Parties Fail to Agree on the HTML 5 Video Codec

by Abel Avram on Jul 15, 2009 |

Ian Hickson, the editor of the HTML 5 Specification, has recently removed the required codecs from the <video> and <audio> tags of the respective draft standard citing difficulties in reaching consensus among major companies involved in distributing video and audio content on the web.

There are two major standards used today: H.264 and Ogg Theora. H.264, or MPEG-4, is a proprietary video compressing standard requiring a license for commercial use, and is considered more appropriate especially for large video volumes. Ogg Theora is an open source free standard but its quality needs some polishing and it is not backed up by a number of important players, according to Hickson:

Apple refuses to implement Ogg Theora in QuickTime by default (as used by Safari), citing lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape.

Opera and Mozilla are against H.264:

Opera refuses to implement H.264, citing the obscene cost of the relevant patent licenses.

Mozilla refuses to implement H.264, as they would not be able to obtain a license that covers their downstream distributors.

Google has a double approach:

Google has implemented H.264 and Ogg Theora in Chrome, but cannot provide the H.264 codec license to third-party distributors of Chromium, and have indicated a belief that Ogg Theora's quality-per-bit is not yet suitable for the volume handled by YouTube.

Microsoft is not even commenting on the <video> tag of the HTML 5 specification.

Philip Jägenstedt, a Developer for Opera Software, details their position:

We consider H.264 to be incompatible with the open web platform due to its patent licensing. For the time being we will support Ogg Vorbis/Theora, which is the best option patent-wise and neck-in-neck with the competition in the quality-per-bit section (especially with recent encoder improvements). We would love to see it as the baseline for HTML5, but in the absence of that hope that the web community will push it hard enough so that it becomes the de-facto standard.

There does not seem to be a reasonable solution in the near future. Hickson sees two options:

  1. Ogg Theora encoders continue to improve. Off-the-shelf hardware Ogg Theora decoder chips become available. Google ships support for the codec for long enough without getting sued that Apple's concern regarding submarine patents is reduced. => Theora becomes the de facto codec for the Web.
  2. The remaining H.264 baseline patents owned by companies who are not willing to license them royalty-free expire, leading to H.264 support being available without license fees. => H.264 becomes the de facto codec for the Web.

Hickson considers the winning codec will have to satisfy the following conditions:

- is implementable without cost and distributable by anyone
- has off-the-shelf decoder hardware chips available
- is used widely enough to justify the extra patent exposure
- has a quality-per-bit high enough for large volume sites

It seems like once again different parties fail to agree on a common standard, everyone pushing things in his own way, and once again time and reality will have to choose the winner or the winners.

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