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InfoQ Homepage News Microsoft Tips the Scale in Favor of HTML 5 and H.264

Microsoft Tips the Scale in Favor of HTML 5 and H.264

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Dean Hachamovitch, General Manager for Internet Explorer at Microsoft, has announced that IE9 will use only the H.264 standard to play HTML 5 video. Microsoft seems to have become very committed to HTML 5, while Flash loses even more ground. The announcement came the same day Steve Jobs detailed why Apple does not accept Flash on iPhone and iPad.

Microsoft seems to finally take HTML 5 very seriously. Hachamovitch stated: “The future of the web is HTML5” in the beginning of his blog post. And he added: “HTML5 will be very important in advancing rich, interactive web applications and site design.” Many wondered what is Microsoft going to do about HTML 5 and, if they start integrating it, what video standard is it going to use? Microsoft has already started implementing some of the HTML 5 features – history, inline editing, web database – but they still have to catch up with the other browser vendors which have many more feature implemented like Canvas, Drag&Drop, Messaging, Video, Audio, Workers and others. But IE9 will certainly contain many of these features, Microsoft being known of advancing quickly on something after they have set their mind on it. For example, the IE team demoed recently IE9 running HTML 5 video on GPU, a step in front of other browsers by using hardware acceleration.

Microsoft had to choose between the proprietary video standard H.264, a.k.a. Advanced Video Coding (AVC), and the free Ogg Theora codec. Firefox and Opera are using the later while Chrome implements both. Microsoft has announced IE9 will use only H.264. Hachamovitch also mentioned that developers writing applications for Windows won’t have to pay licenses for using the H.264 codec, not even when accessing hardware accelerated features because the license fee is already included in Windows.

Hachamovitch mentioned they will continue to work with Adobe to fix problem in their player but they seem committed to a web based on HTML 5 not Flash.

Hachamovitch announcement came the same day Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, detailed why they are not allowing Flash on iPhone and iPad. Among other reasons, he stated that Flash has implemented an old version of H.264 which consumes too much power:

To achieve long battery life when playing video, mobile devices must decode the video in hardware; decoding it in software uses too much power. Many of the chips used in modern mobile devices contain a decoder called H.264 – an industry standard that is used in every Blu-ray DVD player and has been adopted by Apple, Google (YouTube), Vimeo, Netflix and many other companies.

Although Flash has recently added support for H.264, the video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder that is not implemented in mobile chips and must be run in software. The difference is striking: on an iPhone, for example, H.264 videos play for up to 10 hours, while videos decoded in software play for less than 5 hours before the battery is fully drained.

Coming back to HTML 5, Firefox and Opera are the only major browser vendors which are still committed to Ogg Theora which is known as providing less quality compared to H.264. They blame the license fees required to use the proprietary standard. The standard is licensed by MPEG LA, a packager of patent pools currently managing the rights for technologies like MPEG-2, MPEG-4, ATSC, or IEEE 1394. Apple, Microsoft, and Google are among the licensees, but Apple and Microsoft are also licensers. According to MPEG LA, that is possible because

Any party that believes it has patents which are essential to the AVC Standard, and wishes to participate in the AVC Patent Portfolio License upon successful evaluation, is invited to submit them for evaluation and inclusion.

The H.264 license policy is evaluated every 5 years, the current one ending on Dec. 31, 2010. Different royalties apply for creating codecs based on H.264 that could be included or not in an operating system, consuming video on a subscription or title-by-title basis, or for Internet broadcasts of free TV shows (see royalties summary (PDF)). For example, adding a H.264 codec to an operating system involves a fee of $5 Million/year during 2009-2010. It the royalties were to increase they cannot grow more than 10% during the next 5 years.

H.264 is used across a large variety of devices including “set-top boxes, media player and other personal computer software, mobile devices including telephones and mobile television receivers, Blu-ray DiscTM players and recorders, Blu-ray video optical discs, game machines, personal media player devices, still and video cameras, subscription and pay-per view or title video services, free broadcast television services and other products.“

Based on the later developments the future of the web seems to be tightly related to HTML 5, and its video component will most like be based on H.264.

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