Opening Up Video on the Web - Is it Possible?

Film strip image - by dpade1337 on Flickr

The web works because of open standards. It doesn't matter whether you're reading this on a Firefox on Linux, Opera Mini on a BlackBerry, IE on Windows, or even (possibly with a few issues) WorldWideWeb on NEXTSTEP. You can still read this content, because all of the protocols and languages used to encode and deliver this content to you are open standards.

For text and images, this pretty much works. Video, on the other hand, is a much more challenging issue. There are lots of competing ways to encode and deliver video on the web, some of which are available under open licences (say, Ogg Theora) and some of which are not (Flash video). And, unfortunately, the open ways to do it aren't the most popular right now and don't have much out-of-the-box support beyond open source operating systems.

Mozilla recently announced that they are putting $100,000 behind the Wikimedia Foundation to push the Theora video codec, which is free and open. Support for the Theora codec will also be built right into Firefox 3.1, which should make it easier to distribute content encoded with it, without users having to install special software.

That's great. But are we already too late to push for open video standards, with proprietary platforms and FOSS-incompatible standards already reaching ubiquity?

Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Adobe are unlikely to want to standardise on something else, when they already have made investments elsewhere. Apple, for example, has put huge weight behind the MPEG-4 platform, particularly the H.264 video and AAC audio codecs and it would seem very unlikely that they would then invest in any other platform.

Now this MPEG-4 stuff is an ISO standard; we are even reaching a certain degree of convergence across traditional tech companies. I can take an H.264/AAC movie and play it on an Xbox 360 or an Apple TV and it all works exactly the same.

So why can't free software play nice with this MPEG-4 stuff? It's an ISO standard, right? The problem is that the codecs that make up MPEG-4 are often subject to patents and other intellectual property restrictions that leave open source and free software out in the cold. The potential threat of legal action means that while support might exist, it is challenging to bundle and a bit of a grey area.

The free software community aren't able to participate in any standard video and audio formats unless these standards are actually going to work within their licensing frameworks and not be embroiled in IP soup.

So, free software becomes less of a viable platform if it simply can't do this out of the box. This means that it either won't grow very much and spread the greater good (if you will), or we have to make sacrifices about the 'purity' of our software, which is more palatable to some than others.

Theora logo

Does it then make sense for us to make our own formats, Theora, for example, and try to push them to compete with the existing ones? Or, does this just make the whole codec mess more, well, messy? The pragmatist in me doesn't think this competition approach makes an awful lot of sense. I'd be perfectly happy to compromise and just run with the MPEG formats, however imperfect.

Don't get me wrong, though - I think having a video format suitable for the FOSS world which works on FOSS out-of-the-box is vitally important. It's just that this makes it a real challenge for content providers actually support both free software users and, well, everyone else that doesn't ship that stuff. Two versions of the same content? It's too difficult unless a big part of your audience are using pure FOSS, so it's not considered worth doing.

We're in a bit of a deadlock situation. Maybe I'm cynical, but it feels like the goal of having a truly open web, for all the content available on it, is an impossible one. At least, that is, until some major change comes around and our community get to have a share of the influence on the next big standard.

Oh, and when US intellectual property law gets a bit more sensible.

What do you think about open standards on the web? Is this goal of everything being in an open format achievable, now or in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Film strip image at top of post is by dpade1337 on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA. The Xiph Fish Logo and its variant are trademarks of Xiph.Org.

Avatar for peter Peter Upfold -

Peter Upfold is a technology enthusiast from the UK. Peter’s interest in Linux stems back to 2003, when curiosity got the better of him and he began using SUSE 9.0. Now he runs Linux Mint 9 on the desktop, runs a CentOS-based web server from home for his personal website and dabbles in all sorts of technology things across the Windows, Mac and open source worlds.

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Discussion: Opening Up Video on the Web - Is it Possible?

  1. James Marshall (guest)

    # Posted on 28 January 2009 at 09:20 PM

    Great article!

    I think that video has received less media attention than audio and that the issue of open standards is one that will only get bigger in the future as it becomes easier for the home user to create and upload content (not that it isn't already easy, however, but WMV is not the be-all-and-end-all of the video world).

    The proliferation of standards such as MPEG-4 is such that everything from mobile phones, to digital cameras encode in this standard. Whether Theora takes off or not I can't see Sony Ericsson or Canon changing their devices anytime soon.

    Personally I hate using anything other than MP3 for my music. The very sight of an album to download as WMA or AAC or even, dare I say it, OGG Vorbis puts me right off. I know where I stand with MP3 - for all its' faults it just works and I think that is the same opinion as many in the video industry take about AVI, DIVx, and MPEG-4.

    James :)

  2. Matthew (guest)

    # Posted on 29 January 2009 at 06:43 AM

    We can do this! Consume Ogg Theora video: check out the Wiki for Theora websites, instead of going to YouTube for video entertainment. Produce Ogg Theora video: learn how to record, encode your videos, and learn your tool-chain. Lastly, Publish Ogg Theora video: put your videos on or which supports the upload and download of this video format.

    As the Mozilla guys say, "make the web you want!"

    By the way, have you seen the new Cowon and SanDisk Sansa inexpensive, portable players that support Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, and Ogg Theora?

  3. mark (guest)

    # Posted on 29 January 2009 at 05:00 PM

    For me it is about what works. I have Linux, Windows, and Mac at my house and I could be using a music file on anyone of them. Ideally I would like to encode everything in flac format for ultimate quality, but outside of my Linux box flac support is pretty bleak. I also have a streaming server that a friend was using and without on-the-go encoding he wasn't able to seamlessly listen to the music. Now I can setup every machine in my house to use flac, and I can purchase devices (MP3 players) that support that codec, but I was finding it too hard to do. OGG wasn't much better when it came to device and OS support so I opted for MP3 because of its ubiquity. I've been pretty happy. I am not an Open Source purist, though it is preferred, bu the ease of support and standardization outweigh purity. MP3 wins out because it is everywhere, and I don't mind much because it is supported on all of my computers.

    Now as for video there isn't a clear winner yet, so I don't know that I would tuck and run just yet, though clearly FOSS is the underdog. But what I can't support is a format that doesn't support Linux. I would apply the same logic I used for audio to video. I think competition would still be a good thing, and I would always want a choice of a completely open format. At the same time formats like Flash don't worry me because they are legally supported on the major OS, what I am concerned about would be formats like wma and such. So if flash or mpeg formats became standard that is fine by me. Ultimately I just want the hold video streaming blocking dance to end. If you truly want your content out there you will support any OS, pretty simple to me.

  4. उन्मुक्त (guest)

    # Posted on 30 January 2009 at 03:29 AM

    The article has a point of view but the future is with open standards. Even if it wasn't, it should be pushed. Mozilla foundation did the right thing.

  5. # Posted on 03 February 2009 at 07:29 PM

    [...] announcement was covered in The New York Times, Ars Technica, PC World, TechCrunch, FOSSwire, WIRED and many others.  You can view all the trackbacks at the bottom of the original [...]

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