Opening Up Video on the Web - Is it Possible?

  • January 28, 2009
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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.

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