The fight over HTML5

There has been plenty of virtual ink spilled lately on the whole HTML5 video element.

In case you need a recap; talks between the W3C and browser vendors about a single universally supported codec embedded in the HTML5 standard have broken down and the issue has spilled out into the tech media.

The situation can be summed up pretty simply:

Organisation: Makes browser: Owns IP in AVC/H.264: Owns video service: Will support:
Google Chrome No Youtube H.264, Theora
Microsoft Internet Explorer Yes MS Showcase and MSN video andMSNBC H.264
Apple Safari Yes Itunes, AppleTV, Apple Trailers H.264
Mozilla Firefox No None Theora
Opera Opera No None Theora

A big part of the purpose of supporting open codecs like Theora is to ensure that the cost of creating video sites and services that compete with Youtube, MSN video and iTunes stays as low as possible. The result:

3 of 3 browser makers that own a video service come out in support of H.264.

Both of the companies that contribute IP to the AVC/H.264 patent portfolio voted that H.264 become the codec built into the standard.

Subsequently the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) dropped Theora from the standard since the major players can’t/won’t agree on.

With a fad driven business like video serving, and another 75% of the worlds population yet to come online, Google, Apple and Microsoft did what they needed to do to make sure they remain the top dogs in video; they raised the price for potential competitors.

Mozilla is pretty explicit about ensuring the web still has some disruptive potential left in it by the time the rest of the world starts using it but for some reason tech bloggers seem unable to see forest behind the trees (with one or two excellent exceptions):

Brian Crescimanno writes to complain that the open source “idealists” at Mozilla are ruining the opportunity to have an “encode once, deploy anywhere format”. He rekons they should support it because its convienient to have a single format.

John Gruber seconds Brian’s supporting argument that “Theora sucks”, and goes on to chalk up these companies support of H.264 to strictly technical reasons like the needs of the hardware in the mobile computing market.

I think there are better questions to be asked. Questions about what we expect from standards and how to tell the difference between a standard and a marketing ploy. Questions about whether we truly believe that businesses will always (or ever) act in the public interest, especially when the public interest is served by making it easier for people to compete against them. Those answers will not be found discussing bitrates.

I, for one am very grateful for is that Mozilla is a big enough player to even make this much of an impact. Without them in the room, the future of the internet would be shaped by a room full of patent holders bent on monetizing your every click and keystroke. Having nowhere near the kind of business entanglements and conflicts of interest the others do, they are free to advocate for the users. They are able to do it without worrying about producing a profit this quarter or answering to an angry board about why they didn’t wring every penny out of their client base.

Its a position afforded them by funding from Google who desperately need someone to stave off Microsoft from dominating the web. It may not last forever but, for now they are seizing the moment and anything other than H.264 becoming part of the standard should be viewed as a huge win. Not just for them but for us.


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