Oh, What a Lovely Standards War


You know something big must be afoot when people start to get worked up over video compression standards. Basically, the issue is whether the current de facto standard, H.264, will continue to dominate this field, and if not, what might take over.

This battle has been simmering for a while. For example, this is what the Editor of the HTML 5 standard wrote about the issue of choosing video and audio codecs:

After an inordinate amount of discussions, both in public and privately, on the situation regarding codecs for video and audio in HTML5, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship.

There then follows an extraordinary long – and interesting – explanation of the political machinations that have been going on in the area of codecs, as all the major players try to turn the issue to their advantage. The end-result is that no common codec was agreed upon, thus ensuring that we all suffer. Here's the summary:

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

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.

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.

Microsoft has not commented on their intent to support video at all.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I tend to agree with the following assessment from Mozilla's Christopher Blizzard:

If you think that this isn’t an issue that’s worth worrying about you need to read the rest of this post. In particular the history of GIF shows us what happens when patented technologies are used on the web and what happens when network effects over-run the natural drive to royalty-free technologies at scale. MP3 pricing gives us a glimpse into the strategy around H.264 licensing and what the landscape might look like 5 years from now, assuming H.264 were baked into the web platform as a requirement.

He concludes:

We don’t want to set ourselves up with another GIF situation and set up licensing like MP3 where we’ll be dealing with increased costs and restrictions over time. Google is likely to support something other than H.264 on Youtube and we’re likely to end up with something that’s better on a royalty-free basis as a result. And as I mention below, Theora and Vorbis are still excellent alternatives even if they for some reason don’t do as we expect.

Mozilla and Firefox continue to stand with the web on this topic. We don’t think that fundamental web technologies should be encumbered with patents and our actions and messages reflect that. We hope that you will stand with us on this.

Basically, what this means is that Mozilla refuses to support H.264 as the standard codec. So what? You might say: another pointless ethical stand by those tiresome sandal-wearing free software hippies...

Well, maybe not so pointless:

MPEG LA announced today that its AVC Patent Portfolio License will continue not to charge royalties for Internet Video that is free to end users (known as Internet Broadcast AVC Video) during the next License term from January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2015. Products and services other than Internet Broadcast AVC Video continue to be royalty-bearing, and royalties to apply during the next term will be announced before the end of 2010.

Now, why would they do that? Why would they turn down all that revenue? Magnanimity? I don't think so... This is clearly a reaction to Mozilla's stand, and an attempt to weaken its position by removing one of its objections (about the need to pay royalties). Of course, it does nothing about the more substantive issue of patents, and also says absolutely nothing about what happens in 2016.

The key point here is that Mozilla's stubbornness on this issue has *already* made a difference – a financial difference in this case. It demonstrates that Mozilla was right to be stubborn, and shows why it is right to stand up for the Open Web wherever it may be threatened. Moreover, this provides yet another demonstration of the fact that you don't have to believe in free software's principles to benefit from its victories: you get them to share in them anyway.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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