Stalemate for Web standards continues with no open video for HTML 5

The dream of a completely free platform for online video has run up against a significant roadblock, and it's another drama that Microsoft appears happy to watch play out from the sidelines. That dream is that Web developers can embed video into their sites using the <VIDEO> element of HTML 5, without being encumbered by anyone's proprietary technology. If it works, those sites can be assured of being able to stream to browsers' native codecs, rather than requiring users to install usually proprietary plug-ins like Adobe Flash or Apple QuickTime.

The problem with online video is that the technology behind it -- encoding, decoding, streaming and distribution -- is typically owned by somebody. That means it can't freely be distributed in an open source package. The exception here is Ogg Theora, the leading open source codec, and the hope of the community for a royalty- and penalty-free Web video platform. Yet its underlying technology may not only be outmoded, some are arguing, but may also actually still be owned by someone who has yet to assert patent rights.

In any event, for Ogg Theora to be accepted, it needs to be used; and this time it's Google, the proprietor of YouTube which leads the online video community by a wide margin and the maker of the up-and-coming Chrome Web browser, that's putting the biggest damper on that party. While the DailyMotion Web service has made the biggest inroads toward adopting Ogg Theora, and thus allowing new Web browsers like Firefox 3.5 to show video without plug-ins, even Mozilla's engineers are admitting to the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) that it's not a big enough dent. Not only that, but they're blasting Google for essentially neutralizing free video's chances of success.

"I do not like the situation on the Web today, where to use all the content you need to have a license to Flash," wrote Mozilla Director of Ecosystem Development Mike Shaver last June 12 to the WHATWG, "and I'm saddened that Google is choosing to use its considerable leverage -- especially in the Web video space, where they could be a king-maker if ever there was one -- to create a future in which one needs an H.264 patent license to view much of the video content on the Web."

Shaver discussed a situation where the difficulty in adopting Web video does not come from actually adopting the Ogg codec itself -- transcoding, he argued, was relatively simple -- but from sites that are forced to develop systems for supporting both Ogg and "legacy" codecs, mostly because YouTube substantiates that legacy. He brought up the case of DailyMotion, which has made the move to Ogg and has thus become the largest video site to be supported by Firefox 3.5's native codec. (Google Chrome for Windows also supports Ogg as well as H.264, but Google is not in a position to extend that capability to the Linux version of Chromium, which is completely open source.) But that can't make the dent it needs to make, because as Shaver said, "basically all the content on the Web is Google's!"

That prompted this response on the WHATWG mailing list from Google's open source program manager Chris DiBona: "Comparing DailyMotion to YouTube is disingenuous. If [YouTube] were to switch to Theora and maintain even a semblance of the current YouTube quality it would take up most available bandwidth across the Internet. The most recent public number was just over 1 billion video streams a day, and I've seen what we've had to do to make that happen, and it is a staggering amount of bandwidth. DailyMotion is a fine site, but they're just not YouTube."

The argument, and Google's unwillingness to give in, led HTML 5 principal author Ian Hickson late last month to suspend work on the <VIDEO> element. "I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no suitable codec that all vendors are willing to implement and ship," Hickson wrote. "I have therefore removed the two subsections in the HTML 5 spec in which codecs would have been required, and have instead left the matter undefined."

Hickson would be willing to pick up the project again, he went on, if one of two situations were to play out: 1) if Ogg Theora support were to be embedded in more graphics firmware, enough for Google's position on the standard to thaw and thus support Ogg as an alternative for YouTube (although if not enough players have declared Ogg's foundation obsolete already, there certainly would be plenty by then); 2) the patent license holders for the H.264 codec were to let their claims lapse, enabling it to be supported without license fee requirements.

Presently, Mozilla and Opera Software are the two major players that remain on-board with the idea of Ogg Theora support built into the browser, especially now that Firefox 3.5 is shipping. Apple is reluctant to provide similar support in Safari, stating its fear that holders of the patents for video technology upon which Ogg is based -- technology that used to be considered proprietary at one time -- may exercise their rights under "submarine patents" and take Mozilla and others to court.

Meanwhile, Google sits pretty with its colossal provider of Flash video that some key platforms, including the iPhone, still refuse to support; and Microsoft is very happy to have absolutely nothing to say on this subject, letting everyone else fight it out indefinitely.

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