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.
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