Firefox 3.1 will try native Ogg video and audio, despite W3C

Should a Web browser be capable of decoding audio and video for itself? Mozilla is seriously experimenting with the notion, despite a turn of events in the open source community that may mean its experiment won't be a standard.

For years, one of the most significant debates in the field of Web browser development concerns the issue of openness versus choice. Specifically, should a Web browser support an open standard for embedding audio and video elements by default, or should it continue to enable Web site developers to include the formats of their choice, thus compelling users to download the appropriate, corresponding plug-ins?

The debate turned a corner last December, when the World-Wide Web Consortium apparently backed down from its plan to enable default codecs for its planned <VIDEO> and <AUDIO> tags in HTML 5. Open source developers had been looking forward to support for the Ogg Vorbis audio codec from the Xiph.org Foundation -- which is presently patent-free -- and the Ogg Theora video codec, based on open source, though patented, technology from On2. That company has pledged not to use its patents to restrict that codec's use.

Setting up these tags for default settings would enable Web browsers such as Mozilla Firefox to utilize built-in codecs, as an alternative to -- or as a way to bypass the need for -- proprietary add-ons such as Apple's QuickTime, Adobe's Flash, or Microsoft's Silverlight. But in what was largely viewed as a surrender to proprietary interests, W3C amended its HTML 5 documentation late last year to indicate that browsers may still require proprietary multimedia codecs.

"This specification might have certain additional requirements on character encodings, image formats, audio formats, and video formats in the respective sections," reads one clearly marked addition by W3C's Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG).

Later came this telling addition: "It would be helpful for interoperability if all browsers could support the same codecs. However, there are no known codecs that satisfy all the current players: we need a codec that is known to not require per-unit or per-distributor licensing, that is compatible with the open source development model, that is of sufficient quality as to be usable, and that is not an additional submarine patent risk for large companies."

This enraged many open source developers including Manuel Amador, who fired off a heated response to the WHATWG. "This compromise on basic values is unacceptable, whatever the practical reasons you have deemed to compromise for," Amador wrote. "If you don't revert, you will be giving us independent authors the shaft. And we will remember it forever."

Now, in an early alpha release of Mozilla Firefox 3.1, some of its key developers have announced, it will go ahead and test Ogg Vorbis audio and Ogg Theora video support as defaults for the new HTML 5 elements, as though W3C had decided to implement them that way anyway.

"This original commit is a work in progress," writes developer Chris Double in a recent blog post. "There are unimplemented bits, bugs, etc that need to be sorted out. But it's a start towards using a common codec across all platforms and will improve as we get towards the 3.1 release."

And as developer Christopher Blizzard adds, "I suspect that the effects of this will take a long while to be felt but it's a great first step in bringing open video to the Web by delivering it to a couple hundred million people around the world."

The first alphas of Firefox 3.1, code-named "Shiretoko," were released by Mozilla last week.

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