HTML 5 Will Leave Video in the Air

HTML 5 — the next generation of the language that defines the World Wide Web — has made great strides in the way browsers handle media. Rather than utilizing proprietary technologies like Flash or Silverlight, HTML 5 will implement audio and video tags that provide multimedia content outside the existing frameworks. For all its progress, however, it's now known that what the specification won't have is a standard video codec.

The issue of which codec would become the standard for the specification — a matter now rendered moot — has been hotly contested. The Open Source Ogg Theora codec had been slated to take the title, a victory not just for improving the web experience, but also for open standards. That victory has been delayed — if it comes at all — due to the usual delaying factor: the vendors.

Ian Hickson, maintainer of the HTML 5 specification, announced last week that the plan to include Ogg Theora in the specification as the standard video plugin would be scrapped due to opposition from browsermakers. Both of the plugins being considered — H.264 being the other — are apparently vehemently opposed by varying sides of the browser wars. According to Hickson, Apple refuses to include Theora because of a "lack of hardware support and an uncertain patent landscape."1 Mozilla's Firefox 3 includes Theora support, but will not implement H.264 because of patent and license concerns, a position shared by the makers of the Opera browser.

Google's Chrome has support for both codecs, though the Linux version — Chromium — does not include H.264 for licensing reasons, and the company has expressed concern that Theora is not yet ready for use in high-volume media situation, such as its own YouTube. Microsoft, which holds a majority but steadily dwindling share of the browser market with its Internet Explorer offering, apparently has nothing nice to say, because its said nothing at all.

The result of this corporate version of "I'll take my toys and go home" is that Hickson's only option to dodge a zugzwang is to do absolutely nothing, which is exactly what he plans to do. "I have therefore removed the two subsections in the HTML 5 spec in which codecs would have been required, and have instead left the matter undefined, as has in the past been done with other features like IMG and image formats, embed and plugin APIs, or Web fonts and font formats." He went on to paint two scenarios: Either Theora will gain sufficient share to quiet Apple's fit and thus become the de facto standard, or the patents on H.264 that give all the others the heebie-jeebies will expire and it will become the de facto standard.

One way or another, Hickson says the issue will be revisited, possibly taking the search for an audio standard as a guide: "Since audio has a much lower profile than video, I propose to observe the audio feature and see if any common codecs surface, instead of specifically requiring any. I will revisit this particular topic in the future when common codecs emerge."

The situation is as it is, but that isn't to say Hickson is in the least bit pleased about it. "This is a terrible situation for the spec to be in. I wish we had good answers instead of this quagmirish deadlock."

1) Hickson has apparently stated that his comments may not have adequately conveyed the extent of Apple's concerns. ZDNet UK has requested clarification from Apple, but the company has yet to respond.

Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.


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Money talks

goblin's picture

I thought my next desktop system would be a Mac of some kind, until I read this article.

Amen, goblin. No Macs for

Anonymous's picture

Amen, goblin. No Macs for me, either. Apple has a worse case of Not-Invented-Here syndrome than even Microsoft does, and that's saying something.

Wonder when the planet will grow up!

1Earth's picture

Just imagine how many decades more advanced the planet as a whole could have been if everyone could just give up something for the greater good. As I see it, Apple and Google are the stumbling blocks here.

Apple can help solve the patent limitations on H.264 or Google can donate expertise to Ogg to mature it to a level that they feel comfortable can handle the demands that will be placed on it. Will finalizing and implementing this standard not benefit everybody equally in the long run?

The *real* reason Apple objects to Ogg Theora

Sum Yung Gai's picture

Yeah, Apple is "concerned" with an uncertain patent landscape WRT Ogg Theora. But here's how they define "uncertain":

uncertain (adj): not owned by Apple, Inc. or some other outfit that doesn't foster our vendor lock-in

Once again, the arrogance of Steve Jobs and his crew rears its ugly head. Xiph made it very clear that whatever patents exist regarding Ogg Theora and Ogg Vorbis are free to use, unlimited, without license or royalty. Apple's just whining and running scared of truly open standards...yet again.

It's a shame that Ian didn't have the stones to tell Apple to go ahead and "take your toys and go home." Let Firefox 3.5 spread far and wide, then.


Wonder when the industry will grow up!

Salvadesswaran Srinivasan's picture

The software industry is the only one with no fixed and accepted standard. I guess the open vs proprietary war is a never ending one, so we'll never have video codecs in the HTML specification till 2020 atleast. Firefox and Opera have taken an appreciable stand, but IE has to bow down to their employer's pressure.