Open Video on the Web: Where Are We Now?

  • June 30, 2010
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Back in January 2009, I wrote a post on opening video on the web. At the time, the Mozilla Foundation had just invested $100,000 in the Wikimedia Foundation to use Theora for videos on their sites.

In the last year and a half, the situation with video on the web has changed quite a lot. So what do those changes mean for free software and open source — where are we now with video on the web, are we any closer to open source and patent free web video?

HTML5, audio and video tags

Something really important has happened in the last 18 months. Adobe Flash, long the dominant platform for delivering web video, is in trouble. HTML5, a standard which will soon be supported by the major browsers, supports audio and video tags which are designed to allow video and audio playback to be supported natively by the browser — no plugins required.

This all sounds great in theory — the standardisation of this way of embedding content should make interoperability with web video even better, but unfortunately these tags alone don’t tell the whole story. audio and video themselves are just ways to embed audio and video content; you still need audio and video codecs that the browser will support. This is where things still remain very messy and riddled with legal issues.

Codec Soup: H.264, Theora, VP8 (WebM) …

I discussed Theora and H.264 in my previous post on this subject and many of the issues that were present then still are there now.

H.264 seems to be one of the best codecs from a technical point of view and has wide support from commercial vendors. Most notably, there are a significant body of consumer devices that now have H.264 encoding and decoding hardware. While covered by patents and having a possibly uncertain future (it is free of charge only for personal use until the end of 2015), there is only a single body that holds all the patents and rights, the MPEGLA, making it more attractive for businesses who otherwise may fear being sued.

Theora logo

Theora has traditionally faced criticism for being technically inferior to competing codecs like H.264, but it is supposed to be an open standard which can be distributed without licensing fees and used without issues in completely open source systems, which should make it ideal. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as that. Owners of video compression patents feel threatened by competing, free technologies like Theora, and recent rumours suggest that Theora could be the target of legal threats because of some of these patents which it supposedly infringes upon.

WebM logo

There’s also a new kid on the block, WebM. With the backing of Google, WebM is a separate attempt from Theora to create a royalty free video compression standard which works great on the web. The codec used for the video is VP8, originally developed by On2 Technologies (who also developed VP3, which is now Theora). It is supposed to be technically superior to Theora, the implementation code is open source under the BSD licence and Google have also freed the patents covering the technology. So could WebM be the ideal open source solution if Theora is stuck in the legal doghouse? Unfortunately, it still remains unclear — the patents granted to various technology companies for video technology are so numerous and fundamental that it is likely VP8 could be legally challenged in the same way. To be clear: less direct threats have been made against WebM, and the backing from Google, Mozilla and Adobe could help defend against any future problems, but it still remains a concern. It is exactly that uncertainty that makes the open solution less attractive to businesses who fear legal action.

Browser Support

One of the big ideas of this new web video technology, as I explained earlier, is not needing any plugins to play web video. Of course, that will only work in practice if each browser supports both the HTML5 video tag and the right codec. There’s a useful table on codec support on Wikipedia, but I’ll summarise here.

Mozilla supports Theora in today’s Firefox and by version 4 will also support WebM. They have decided not to support H.264.

Apple’s Safari will support only H.264.

Internet Explorer, from version 9, will support H.264 natively, and WebM will work if the user has separately installed the WebM codec.

Google Chrome supports both Theora and H.264, will soon support WebM in the regular release.

In fact, recent builds of Firefox, Opera and Flock are now WebM-compatible.

My guess is that H.264 is likely to become the most popular format for HTML5 web video, particularly given the momentum it already has due to the Apple iPad, but if Mozilla stick to their word about not supporting it, website owners will probably be forced to encode in two formats – one for ‘most’ browsers, H.264 and either WebM or Theora for Firefox users, along with other browsers such as Opera which are unlikely to support H.264.


So, where are we now with open video on the web?

Sadly, the answer is — still in a mess. There is, I think, still hope for truly open video on the web. There are significant players in this space, including Google, who seem to have the will to get behind open technologies and to challenge the dominant position of H.264 and the MPEGLA. The momentum behind WebM, in particular, and the impressively wide browser support already gained by Theora, means that the free software and patent-free approach still has influence in what will happen in the future.

I think one of the pivotal issues right now is what decision Mozilla will make about supporting H.264. It’s a tough decision, but if they stand their ground on only supporting Theora and WebM, there will either be a backlash against Firefox (a risk it seems they must take), or website owners will have to also support either of those formats in order to serve their Firefox users, meaning H.264 will not become the new de facto standard, or at least not on its own.

This is a really complicated and controversial issue, but it’s one that will be key to the future of the web. As challenging as this is, I believe that if those with influence stick to their principles, we will at least have choice about which technologies we want to use.

Our sister site YouMakeMedia has a tutorial for converting older FLV Flash video to H.264 if you do need to support those clients for the videos on your site!

VHS tape image is from The Xiph Fish Logo and its variant are trademarks of Xiph.Org. The WebM logo is owned by The WebM Project.

Avatar for peter Peter Upfold

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