Towards a Post-H.264 World

In my post yesterday about Cisco making the code for its H264 codec available, I noted that the really important news was that Mozilla was working on Daala, a fully open next generation codec. One of the key people on the team doing that is...

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In my post yesterday about Cisco making the code for its H264 codec available, I noted that the really important news was that Mozilla was working on Daala, a fully open next generation codec. One of the key people on the team doing that is Monty Montgomery, and he's written a really interesting blog post about the announcement and its background, which I recommend thoroughly (the discussion in the comments is also very illuminating):

Let's state the obvious with respect to VP8 vs H.264: We lost, and we're admitting defeat. Cisco is providing a path for orderly retreat that leaves supporters of an open web in a strong enough position to face the next battle, so we're taking it.

By endorsing Cisco's plan, there's no getting around the fact that we've caved on our principles. That said, principles can't replace being in a practical position to make a difference in the future. With Cisco making H.264 available at no cost, holding out against H.264 in WebRTC makes even less sense than holding out after Google shipped H.264 in the video tag. At least under these terms, H.264 will be available at no cost to Mozilla and to any other piece of software that uses the downloadable plugin.

In other words, Mozilla is being pragmatic. Personally, I think that's dangerous for various reasons, some of which I discussed last time, but here I want to concentrate on the open future, rather than the not-so-open present. Montgomery makes the interesting point:

today's arrangement is at best a stopgap, and it doesn't change much on the ground. How many people don't already have H.264 codecs on their machines, legit or otherwise? Enthusiasts and professionals alike have long paid little attention to licensing. Even most businesses today don't know and don't care if the codecs they use are properly licensed. The entire codec market has been operating under a kind of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy for the past 15 years and I doubt the MPEG LA minds. It's helped H.264 become ubiquitous, and the LA can still enforce the brass tacks of the license when it's to their competitive advantage (or rather, anti-competitive advantage; they're a legally protected monopoly after all).

He then concludes by reflecting on what's coming from Mozilla:

Fully free and open codecs are in a better position today than before Google opened VP8 in 2010. Last year we completed standardization of Opus, our popular state-of-the-art audio codec (which also happens to be the best audio codec in the world at the moment). Now, Xiph.Org and Mozilla are building Daala, a next-generation solution for video.

Like Opus, Daala is a novel approach to codec design. It aims not to be competitive, but to win outright. Also like Opus, it will carry no royalties and no usage restrictions; anyone will be permitted to use the Daala codec for anything without securing a license, just like the Web itself and every other core technology on the Internet.

That's a real solution that can make everyone happy.

I couldn't agree more, which is why I would urge all free software projects, and all companies that depend on it – hello, Google – to help it in any way they can, either directly or indirectly. The sooner we have that fully free and open codec – especially one that aims to "win outright" - the better it will be for all of us. It will mean that "pragmatic" decisions like the one to accept automatic downloads of binary blobs won't be an issue at all.

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