'Free' and 'open' Web video may be impossible after Microsoft backs H.264 only

The good news should be, everyone with a major stake in the outcome of the Web video standards debate has now publicly expressed support for something called "open" or "openness." But that's where the similarities, and even the niceness, end. Yesterday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs personally weighed in on the subject by making it an "us against them" battle, with Adobe and Flash the villains.

Late yesterday, the head of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 project, Dean Hachamovitch, followed suit, representing the company whose decisions about what standards to support -- or not support -- have historically steered the course of Web development, for better or worse. Assuming a far more civil tone than Jobs, but with a message no less significant, Hachamovitch solidified Microsoft's stance on high-definition Web video standards by announcing that IE9 would support H.264 for HTML 5 built-in video...and only H.264.

"H.264 is an industry standard, with broad and strong hardware support," Hachamovitch wrote. "Because of this standardization, you can easily take what you record on a typical consumer video camera, put it on the Web, and have it play in a Web browser on any operating system or device with H.264 support (e.g., a PC with Windows 7). Recently, we publicly showed IE9 playing H.264-encoded video from YouTube...For all these reasons, we're focusing our HTML 5 video support on H.264."

The original reason for the creation of the <VIDEO> tag in HTML 5 was to enable browsers to implement built-in codecs that would play back "free video." Soon, stakeholders in HTML 5 realized there may not be such a thing: While patent holders such as MPEG LA do extend royalty-free licenses to folks who view Web video, that's because those royalties are considered paid by those who produce the video using encoder tools and codecs. And while open source developers have been actively creating encoding tools such as x264 that don't incur royalties, the question of whether their underlying technologies may still be claimed by patent holders somewhere in the world, is thought to be a brutal battle just waiting to play itself out.

Hachamovitch referred to this very point yesterday, in praising MPEG LA for its management of a licensing program that does not charge developers "additional royalty" for the use of the technology in H.264. Skillfully avoiding the use of the term "open," he acknowledged that a critical difference exists between availability and ownership, and advised that perhaps the best course to follow is one where the owners are most reasonable and the availability is highest.

But then he could not help but crash head-first into the issue of Adobe Flash. In his message yesterday morning, Steve Jobs thrashed Flash (which he also has a grudge against for also being a middleware platform) for being proprietary, insecure, and dictatorial -- all of which he then went on to characterize Apple as not being. The fervor over Jobs' message, coupled with the fact that Flash is the most prominent video format on today's Web, made the issue unavoidable for Hachamovitch.

"Today, video on the Web is predominantly Flash-based," the IE9 team leader wrote. "While video may be available in other formats, the ease of accessing video using just a browser on a particular Web site without using Flash is a challenge for typical consumers. Flash does have some issues, particularly around reliability, security, and performance. We work closely with engineers at Adobe, sharing information about the issues we know of in ongoing technical discussions. Despite these issues, Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today's Web."

And that's where the message ended, leaving it for readers to infer from it that IE9 will continue to make it easy for Adobe to plug itself directly into the browser. Supporters of the original principles of HTML 5 had come out against the use of video plug-ins -- the problem that the <VIDEO> tag was created to solve -- but have recently acknowledged that if browsers seek to remain "open," then they must remain accepting of the Web's most prevalent video format -- and the plug-in vehicle that comes with it, security risks and all.

Yesterday afternoon, in a video interview with The Wall Street Journal, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen answered Steve Jobs' attack by saying that it is iPhone that is the proprietary platform, and Flash that is the open one, as evidenced by the huge wealth of quality Flash video on the Web. Narayen's implication was that, simply because Adobe owns the methodologies behind Flash, doesn't make Flash any less open or more proprietary than H.264 -- the format which Jobs says Apple supports.

Though it was Apple that stirred the pot yesterday, in recent months, it has been Google that turned up the heat from "simmer" to "boiling." Its role in the Web video issue has been to catalyze debate and keep everyone else guessing, as its own stance on the subject has been all over the map.

The one thing we do know for certain is that Google supports the <VIDEO> tag in HTML 5. But last year, Google threw a monkey wrench into the adoption process by setting itself squarely against the use of Theora, the open source video codec that was Mozilla's preference, as the one HTML 5 codec. Google engineers literally predicted that if Theora were adopted, the resulting traffic from the sheer bulk of poorly encoded video would stall the entire Web.

Within weeks of breaking that iceberg and setting it adrift, Google purchased On2 Technologies, the company actually responsible for creating the underlying principles of VP3, on which Theora was based. That led to speculation that Google would produce VP8, the current version of that codec, under an open source license -- something that Betanews was told Google may not have the authority to do even though it now owns the company behind VP8.

Google could, however, issue a royalty-free license for VP8, perhaps with little or no dispute. That would make VP8 appear to be the HTML 5 codec of choice for its Chrome Web browser, which is growing in popularity.

But then, having yet to exhaust its supply of monkey wrenches, Google began testing building Flash directly into Chrome, helping to cement the position of its YouTube division as the world's principal supplier of Flash video for the foreseeable future. Just yesterday, Adobe followed up by announcing direct support for Flash Player 10.1 in smartphones with Android, Google's open-source small device operating system, starting in June. Which makes things murky enough had Google, not three weeks earlier, announced it was openly funding the continued development of a version of Theora -- the very codec its engineers threatened would cripple the Web, and which now stands in opposition to VP8 -- as an ARM component that could be built into the firmware of smartphones everywhere, including both Android and iPhone, bypassing whatever it is that their browsers may choose to build in or plug in.

The headline for that April 9 announcement was, "Interesting times for Video on the Web." You think?

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