Picking your battles

Most of you have no doubt already seen that Mozilla will be changing their position on H.264 support for HTML5 video in future releases. This is an extremely important decision that I’ve been hoping to see for a while now, and I am really glad this is being done.

There is no doubt that we need patent-unencumbered standards for web codecs (or as much as is possible given the dismal patent ecology today), and while much giddy anticipation followed Google/On2’s release of VP8 into the open, I don’t believe it ever made sense to expect the codec landscape to change drastically in the short timespan everyone expected. There’s a lot of the hardware and software out there that needs to change (see any SoCs with VP8 support yet?), not to mention the interests of the MPEG-LA mafconsortium.

I love Firefox, both as a product and what it means for an open web (for those of you that know me, this might be hard to believe given all my ranting, but it’s true!). I’m glad Mozilla chose to live to fight another day rather than go out in a blaze of glory and (or a flicker of irrelevance).

p.s.: these are my views and do not necessarily represent those of my employer

p.p.s.: Alessandro’s been doing some great work to get the GStreamer multimedia backend going again (this makes so much more sense than going the NIH route!)


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  1. Finally we can be sure that no distro can legally play any videos on the web. It’s great.

    • Right, because no distros ship ffmpeg or gstreamer-plugins-{bad,ugly}?

      • Distros fall into one of 3 categories: (1) don’t ship it Fedora, Red Hat (2) pay Ubuntu (Canonical pays: http://www.mpegla.com/main/programs/AVC/Pages/Licensees.aspx ) (3) small enough to not matter Every other distro. They know that their market share is totally irrelevant and they don’t have any money anyway. So they just risk getting sued.

        • That’s very interesting. I was under the impression that the MPEG-LA had granted a no-royalty license till 2015. Do you know if Canonical is paying fees for profession products, or …?

    • You missed my point completely — Mozilla’s stance (and RedHat/Fedora’s forced stance) on not supporting H.264 have absolutely no bearing on the proliferation of H.264. Neither has any influence in enabling widespread adoption of VP8. Heck, even Google has failed at doing this. And yes, this absolutely sucks.

      RedHat/Fedora can do nothing about it, but Mozilla has the choice of leaving the problem to the operating system, and maybe actually surviving the fact that it finally has some real competition.

  2. From what I can tell, H.264 support won’t be part of Firefox- it will merely pipe through support for any codecs available on the underlying system.

    Personally, I don’t see a big difference between supporting codecs and supporting Flash and other plugins which themselves allow this content to be viewed already. I don’t really see a major conflict with Firefox allowing you to use the software on your system.

    Also, in that case, doesn’t Mozilla essentially divert the responsibility and ownership of the functionality to the codecs/plugins, rather than being the distributor of the support? That way they wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees, if I understand it correctly.

    While it certainly isn’t anything I’m happy about, I’m glad that we leave options available for people who want to be a bit more pragmatic, and are willing to give up a little to carry on with the social standards. It sucks, but until everyone’s using VP8, ogg, odf, etc. I don’t think we should restrict users unnecessarily. Let them choose to be free or not.

    I am sad, however. It seems that we’ve made a lot of progress freeing the web- I hate to see us take steps backwards.

  3. Flash seems like the primary culprit here. Mozilla saying “no H.264 in the video tag” effectively really meant “always use the Flash fallback everyone supplies anyway”. If not for that, Mozilla could have made a more credible case for using WebM.

    • Not much you can do about that, though. Showing video through Flash was (and still is) the status quo, well before people started thinking about native HTML video support. Mozilla and co were fighting two battles at once – trying to ditch Flash, and fighting to discourage people from using the most popular video codec.

      And doing so really only cost them both battles – people weren’t willing to migrate away from Flash until the codec issue was sorted, which prevented them from getting any kind of critical mass on the codec issue.

  4. see any SoCs with VP8 support yet?

    • wiki.webmproject.org/vp8-implementations

      • That’s quite heartening to see, but the original point still stands — it’s going take a few years before those and other SoCs penetrate the market sufficiently to make a dent in the H.264 portion of the pie. Mozilla doesn’t have those few years to wait and twiddle its thumbs.

        • RTCWEB mailing list on the IETF had a big discussion on this codec thing. In the end there is still no resolution (instead of H.264 or VP8, the counter proposal is H.263 because it most likely not patent encumbered any more).

          The argument VP8 is that no company is obliged to declare if VP8 is patent encumbered or not, therefore no one is really answering MPEG-LA’s open call. All companies that think they have patents infringed by VP8 will wait for adoption and large scale deployments before they make their move.

          Moreover, Google’s license on VP8 covers their implementation and the bitstream spec. If people implement their optimizations then they should make sure that those extensions are not patent encumbered. (This is what I understood from the 200 odd mails on the topic).

          So FF using OS’s codec is probably the best way out without paying for H.264. But Chrome has not disabled H.264 support (I think they did briefly but turned it back on, i am not sure anymore) and probably that should indicated to FF the pitfalls of webm-only.

  5. Rockchip already supported vp8 realtime encoding on their 2011 RK 29xx séries (there is only RK30 xx in webmproject)

    References : Rockchip site, from january 2011 : http://www.rock-chips.com/product.php?id=82&width=830&height=500

    In newspaper : in chinese : http://www.imp3.net/10/show.php?itemid=24993

    in french : http://www.macworld.fr/2011/01/06/communique/rockchip-lance-nouvelle-plateforme-internet-mobile-rk29xx/687305/

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