Firefox's latest firestorm: Should the Web be made of codecs?

The fabric of the original World-Wide Web is HTML, and perhaps no one now can deny that if anyone who ever wrote an HTML document owed someone a licensing fee, the Web might never have come to fruition. But as the concept of the Web broadens and becomes, even in several specific respects, cloudier, a showdown is brewing among proponents of two equally arguable trains of thought: One side believes that as the Web evolves to encompass broader forms of media, the technologies that enable that media to be shared and distributed, should themselves be shared and distributed and not bound by proprietary arrangements.

The other side believes that too much of the world's intellectual property is already bound to high-bandwidth digital media, particularly video; and if all video were as openly distributable as text, what's already happening now to The New York Times Company will soon happen to Sony and NBC. If Web media is too free, no one can build a business around its creation and distribution.

The debate is coming to a head now as Mozilla Firefox, the browser that showed the earliest support for built-in video support in HTML 5, wrestles with a new problem: new Web sites launched last week that would support Firefox's built-in video feature, but using a proprietary video codec Mozilla doesn't want.

Collection of the ammunition for the powder keg began last year, amid arguments that at the time sounded more like whimpers than bangs. A dispute had emerged among the developers of technologies for the built-in video processing component of HTML 5, the next version of the Web's fabric. For video to be supported as part of the Web, as the W3C had envisioned, it must be available freely, and the technology that reproduces it must also be royalty-free. Current W3C policy clearly states that membership in the Web's engineering body presumes that each member must confess every technology that it owns and that it may charge license fees for, in order that the W3C may avoid incorporating them into standards that all the other members would suddenly be charged for.

The problem there is this: The development of video technology is a business, and few developers have the incentive to generously release the fruits of their labor unto the Web in the name of openness. When the W3C developed a long-promised <VIDEO> tag for HTML 5, it was with the expectation that someone would jump at the chance to produce the single, universally-accepted standard codec, perhaps using that momentum to construct a powerhouse video distribution platform.

But there already was a powerhouse video distribution platform: YouTube, owned by Google and already well invested in Adobe's Flash video technology. While Flash was already well on its way to becoming ubiquitous, YouTube effectively cemented its status for the next several years. With Google already distributing its own Web browser, it had no interest in fouling its own nest by making room for its own competitor.

That competitor was Ogg Theora (or just Theora), the open source video codec built for the open Ogg platform using technology released to the community by On2. Last July, Google's campaign against Theora began with a public badmouthing of its performance, with a lead Google engineer claiming that if YouTube were to deploy the open codecs used by UK-based DailyMotion, the jump in bandwidth discussion would stifle the entire Internet.

While Theora's proponents accused Google of managing a FUD campaign, the company turned around and purchased On2, the company whose release of its own grip over VP3 made Theora possible in the first place. Then last Wednesday, Google stunned everyone by launching an experimental YouTube site that claims support for the <VIDEO> tag.

That depends on how one defines "support," however. While YouTube engineer Kevin Carle stated at the time, "We are very excited about HTML 5 as an open standard and want to be part of moving HTML 5 forward on the Web," the codec YouTube will use is H.264 -- a package that contains proprietary technologies whose implementers pay royalties to the MPEG Licensing Authority. Leading online HD video competitor Vimeo followed up with its own H.264/HTML 5 trials launched the following day.

Mozilla Chief Evangelist Mike Shaver responded on his blog last Saturday rather delicately, starting by pointing out the common ground between Mozilla and Google, and emphasizing that in some respect, both are pursuing the same goals. But the two have made very different decisions, Shaver went on:
"Some companies pay annually for H.264 licenses, which they can pass on to users of their software. Google has such a license, but as they have described, it does not extend to people building from their source or otherwise extending their browser," Shaver wrote. "Personally, I believe that it is completely their right to make such a decision, even if I would prefer that they made a different decision. Mozilla has decided differently, in part because there is no apparent means for us to license H.264 under terms that would cover other users of our technology, such as Linux distributors, or people in affiliated projects like Wikimedia or the Participatory Culture Foundation. Even if we were to pay the $5,000,000 annual licensing cost for H.264, and we were to not care about the spectre of license fees for internet distribution of encoded content, or about content and tool creators, downstream projects would be no better off."

Mozilla contributor Christopher Blizzard, however, issued language that was a bit more pointed in his own post yesterday: "These moves by Google and Vimeo (and before either of them, DailyMotion) show that things are changing for the better, and faster than I think anyone could have imagined. The players from Google and Vimeo do present a pretty serious problem, though. Each of these require a proprietary H.264 codec to be able to view them. These codecs aren't compatible with the royalty-free web standards that the rest of the Web is built on. The fact that they are being so unabashedly hyped along with the new darling of the Web -- HTML 5 -- means that most people don't understand that something very dangerous is taking place behind the scenes."

Google's move last week had an immediate impact, Blizzard argued, on how other video services perceived the development of Web video, as evidenced by Vimeo's follow-up the very next day, and other moves sure to follow elsewhere. It is already being seen as the chairman of the board voting in favor of H.264, and a redirection in the concept of openness away from non-proprietary, and toward the advancement of someone else's platform. Already Mozilla -- once perceived as the pre-eminent leader in promoting free and open Web video -- is being cast as a stalwart, behind the times. As Daring Fireball's John Gruber chimed in very succinctly last week, "Get with the program, Mozilla."

A similar move was tried a decade ago, when Microsoft advanced ActiveX as a Web standard -- a move which another Mozilla contributor, Robert O'Callahan, points out today went down to an historic defeat.

"I'm not suggesting that the consequences of exposing system codecs to the Web would be identical to exposing ActiveX," Callahan wrote. "That's unlikely, and unknowable. But favoring our principles over short-term gains for users is nothing new for Mozilla, and when we've done it in the past, history shows it was the right thing to do."

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