Firefox 4's bold, browser-specific move with HTML 5 audio API

With the HTML 5 crowd increasing in volume - both in terms of
numbers and noise - Mozilla is looking to regain sole possession as
standard-bearer for Web standards.  Last Tuesday, with the
release of Beta 5 of its upcoming Firefox 4, the organization
opened up public comment on its own experiment with a possible
browser-based API for audio, which may later open up doors for a
video API as well.  If it gains traction, it could enable Web
developers to develop on-screen tools for visualizing and accessing
the data contained within an audio stream.

This could become one of the key distinguishing factors between
HTML 5-based multimedia and add-on codec-based multimedia, should
the idea catch on.  Essentially, it enables the Web page to
access the browser's multimedia data, opening up a treasure trove
of possible new Web apps.  Imagine an Audacity-like audio
editor, but entirely in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.  Or imagine
Pandora without Flash.

Last month, David Humphrey, a Seneca College professor and head
of the Mozilla Foundation's educational effort found his experiment
incorporated in Firefox 4
.  Last week, it became part of
the public beta.

"When we started these experiments, we did so without needing
permission," Humphrey
wrote on his personal blog
, "I didn't have to sign an NDA, go
talk to and convince the right people, or get approvals.  I
just grabbed the source code and started messing around.  And
I did make a mess, at first.  I learned as I went, and we
iterated on the API a lot. . . We weren't judged for doing it
wrong, or for the pace or directions we took.  Instead, we
heard of lot of, 'This is very cool!' and, 'Have you thought about
this?'  We were able to take one of the world's premier
applications (Firefox) and rework it."

One test of Humphrey's experimental API involves producing a
graph (using HTML 5's Canvas element, of course) in sync with the
time track on Firefox's built-in audio player, showing the relative
volume levels of the entire track at certain points in time.

100913 Firefox 4 audio API graph test

Humphrey's contribution now stands a chance of becoming a part
of the way the Web works, when the HTML 5 standard is finally
formalized.  But by W3C's own estimates, that could literally
be the year 2020.  And in the meantime, it may have to
withstand some pressure from competitors who will probably point
out that Mozilla's experiment, for the time being, bears Mozilla's
exclusive trademark.

Everybody wants in on the act

Last winter, browser makers held out hope that HTML 5, the next
iteration of the Web's lingua franca, would be the driving
force for a new wave of change that could compel users to
conceivably switch brands.  But what turned out the following
summer to be an agreement not to agree on one of HTML 5's
key elements - built-in video and audio using open codecs - made
HTML 5 a kind of "jump ball" for browser makers.  Now, each
one - including Microsoft and Apple - is staking its own claim as
to how built-in audio should be deployed, and it's every browser
for itself.

What consensus there has been thus far has centered around the
formation of the <VIDEO> and
<AUDIO> tags used in Web pages. 
Engineers don't want to make Web authors employ hacks, or tricks
such as Internet Explorer's famous "conditional comments," to make
one browser brand interpret one block of code and another brand a
separate block. 
Apple's Safari developer's page
reveals the iPhone and Mac
maker's approach to implementation, including listing different
formats of streams within the element tags, sorted in order of
which ones the browser is most likely to execute on its own
(assuming the developer is able to guess).

Just last February, Adobe pronounced
that waiting for browser
makers to iron out their HTML 5 differences would result in a
situation where "users and content creators would be thrown back to
the dark ages of video on the Web with incompatibility
issues."  Conservative estimates peg Adobe Flash with at least
three-fourths of the Web's video, along with a sizable chunk of the
Web's rich functionality.  That functionality is provided
through a browser add-on, the very existence of which HTML 5 was
originally supposed to eschew.  But now, Adobe finds itself
employing its own "embrace and extend" strategy, which included
releasing an HTML 5 pack for Adobe Illustrator
that enables Web
drawings in SVG using the Canvas element, as an alternative to

Making sure it keeps one toe in every ocean, Google - whose
Chrome browser continues to gain share against Firefox - is now actively promoting HTML 5, while at the same time
building Flash directly into every Chrome build
. . . while at
the same time
developing its own WebM codec
that is neither of the above.

Add to all of this the fact that this Wednesday, Microsoft will
attempt to seize leadership of the HTML 5 message, with its first
public beta of Internet Explorer 9.  It's already planning a
blended message of "beauty" and "HTML 5 compliance" that some members of the press are already eating up like free donuts.

This article originally appeared in Net1News.

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